Gubaidulina/Firsova/Ustvolskaya

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COMPOSERS: Gubaidulina/Firsova/Ustvolskaya
LABELS: Koch Schwann
WORKS: Quartet for Four Flutes; Viola Suite, Op. 2; Composition No. 1
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Ritter, Bernd Osten, Hans-Udo Heinzmann, Susanne Barner (flute), Walter Hilgers (tuba), Wilfried Schoberansky (bassoon), Thomas Oepen (viola), Werner Hagen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 3-1170-2 DDD
‘And my freedom is spectral, like the voice of midnight birds,’ wrote the dissident poet Osip Mandelstam in 1910. It is as good a preface as any to these three composers. Their sounds seem to arrive like points of light from out of the darkness, notes on a knife edge as if heard for the first time. Now, as in the 19th century, the relative isolation of Russian composers from the rest of Europe has led to a productive tension between exotic, indigenous elements and a tentative interpretation of Western developments. Gubaidulina, in particular, has drawn on her knowledge of Central Asian ethnic music, on the rituals of the church, on jazz and the Western art music tradition to form a spellbinding and totally original body of work. Like her, Ustvolskaya was never so overtly modernist as to attract censorship, though her music was criticised for being ‘narrow’ and ‘rigid’. But it is this very starkness that makes it timeless. Late 20th-century ears are ripe for these distant echoes of Shostakovich, pared down to an almost barbarous degree, luminous with spirituality and delivered with impressive structural conviction.

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Three pieces of Gubaidulina’s are worthy of mention. In the first movement of Silenzio the composer examines pitches on the human-sounding violin and cello, and the clinical accordion. Like so many of Gubaidulina’s works, the piece is both an object of contemplation and a dynamic drama, rather in the way a church triptych or icon functions in a church. In croce for cello and organ is perhaps the most impressive of these dramatic structures, drawing as it does a cross in sound, and here given a tumultuous performance by Israeli cellist Maya Beiser. While the organ free-falls through mysterious harmonies, the cello ascends a scale of such tension its sound twists like a solid cable. Beiser also has the bite and grip required for the intense series of cello Preludes. Her reading of Ustvolskaya’s Grand Duet (1959), where rhythmic vitality tempers total nihilism, is exceptional.

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Firsova’s Viola Suite (1967), written before she had ever heard Webern, shows impressive fluency, and her progress is well represented by the deft Meditation in a Japanese Garden (1992), both given fine performances here. On two discs of rather heavy, unforgiving music, Gubaidulina’s inventive In Erwartung for saxophone quartet and percussion is a lesson in sonic synthesis and Ustvolskaya’s absurdist trio for piccolo, tuba and piano is (almost) witty. Helen Wallace