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Music Review: Sofia Gubaidulina – Canticle of the Sun

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The Lockenhaus Festival in Austria was founded by Giden Kremer and Father Josef Herovitsch in 1981 as a place to present new music to the world. The recent five-disc ECM release Edition Lockenhaus contains some marvelous music from the festival over the years. But there has obviously been a great deal more music played there than has seen release. The ECM New Series release Canticle of the Sun features two compositions by Sofia Gubaidulina which were recorded at the Festival. Both are magnificent examples of modern classical music.

The first work is titled “The Lyre of Orpheus,” and is actually only the first portion of the Nadeyka triptych. It was composed in 2006, and recorded at Lockenhaus that same year. This 23:40 piece features Gidon Kremer (violin), Marta Sudraba (violoncello) and the Kremerata Baltica ensemble. This represents the premiere recording of “The Lyre,” and it is an extraordinarily dramatic composition. The violin of Kremer is masterful, and the contrasts the music employs are at times almost frightening in their intensity.

If anything, the title work “Canticle of the Sun” is even more intense. It is divided into four sections: “Glorification of the Creator, and of His Creations: The Sun and the Moon” (10:12); “Glorification of the Creator, the Maker of the Four Elements: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth” (13:19); “Glorification of Life” (14:29); “Glorification of Death” (7:23).

The recording of “Canticle of the Sun” took place at the 2010 Festival. The performers are Nicolas Alstaedt (violoncello), Andrei Pushkarev, Rihards Zalupe (percussion), Rotislav Krimer (celesta), and the Riga Chamer Choir: “Kamer…” conducted by Maris Sirmais.

The piece was composed in 1997, and revised in 1998. The text is The Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis of Assisi. In the liner notes Sofia Gubaidulina discusses the difficulties she had in staying faithful to the intentions of the text, while incorporating it into the larger piece.

She explains, “I understood that under no circumstances should this text be sung through. Under no circumstances should the expression of this canticle be intensified by music…This is the glorification of the Creator and His Creation by a very humble, simple Christian friar. I tried therefore to make the choral part very restrained, even secretive; and to put all the expression in the hands of the cellists and percussionists.”

This explains a great deal when one listens to the piece. The first time I played it, I was also reading, and kept wondering why the choral sections were so quiet in comparison to the music. Once I read Sofia’s notes, it all made sense. The texts are presented in their original Italian form, but the booklet thankfully translates the words into English as well.

As the composer indicates, the whole of “Canticle of the Sun” is much more devoted to the musical than the textual. In fact, the piece was inspired, and dedicated to “the greatest cellist of the twentieth century, Mstislav Rostropovich.” There are certainly percussive moments of punctuation, and the choir has already been mentioned. But this composition is dominated by the beautiful violoncello work of Nicolas Alstaedt.

I must confess that the various artists Manfred Eicher records for his ECM New Series have led me into a deep appreciation for classical music, both the “old masters,” and some contemporary composers. Canticle of the Sun powerfully represents one of the reasons for this. I have listened to it numerous times already, and will continue to.

But I wonder if I will ever “get to the bottom” of it. I understand the basics of music theory, and even play a bit of guitar. The compositions of Sofia Gubaidulina, and these Lockenhaus performances are so far above my rudimentary knowledge, however, that I can only listen in amazement. Canticle of the Sun represents the very best in modern classical music. This release is as fine an example of what the ECM New Series does best as anyone could ask for.

About Greg Barbrick