Gubaidulina: St John Passion

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Gubaidulina
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Natalia Korneva (soprano), Viktor Lutsiuk (tenor), Fedor Mozhaev (baritone), Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass); St Petersburg Chamber Choir, Mariinsky Theatre Choir & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Sofia Gubaidulina’s St John Passion is a phenomenal feat of composition. It’s hard to believe that anyone could make so much from so little. The basic ingredient of almost every solo or chorus, melody or gesture is the minor second, the interval that has represented sighs and groans of pain in Western music for centuries – Bach’s use of it in the final bar of his St Matthew Passion is perhaps the supreme example. From this Gubaidulina weaves textures of immense complexity, like the crowd scenes in ‘The Way to Golgotha’, or draws out tellingly simple, sparingly harmonised chants or recitatives. The trouble is, it’s all so unrelentingly bleak, the mood shifting from dread to desolation and back again. Frantic, polyphonically dense crescendos reminiscent of Ligeti’s Requiem alternate with passages of black stasis, closer in mood to the anguished emptiness of late Shostakovich. Even the ‘Liturgy in Heaven’, enriched with swirling metallic haloes of percussion, is claustrophobic and doom-laden. The text allows glimmers of hope, of the possibility of salvation – the music, none. Valery Gergiev, the soloists, chorus and orchestra sustain the intensity mercilessly, and the sound of Gennady Bezzubenkov’s deep bass voice – somewhere between an earth-tremor and a subterranean growl – haunts the mind long after the disc


is back in its box. I’ll think long and hard before taking it out again though. Stephen Johnson