Sofia Gubaidulina: Canticle of the Sun (ECM New Series 2256)

Canticle of the Sun

Sofia Gubaidulina
Canticle of the Sun

Gidon Kremer violin
Marta Sudraba violoncello
The Kremerata Baltica
Nicolas Altstaedt violoncello
Andrei Pushkarev percussion
Rihards Zalupe percussion
Rostislav Krimer celesta
Riga Chamber Choir Kamēr…
Māris Sirmais conductor
Recorded July 2006 (Lyre) and July 2010 (Canticle) at Lockenhaus Festival
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The liner notes for Canticle of the Sun open with a laudatory note from Gidon Kremer, who thanks Sofia Gubaidulina “for generously sharing your magic world with all of us.” Few recordings abide by that sentiment as vividly as ECM’s first album dedicated entirely to the Russian composer. The two pieces featured here were both recorded at Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival, captured in all their spirit of absolution.


The Lyre of Orpheus (2006), of which this is the world premiere recording, is the first of a triptych that explores the space between summation tone and difference tone (produced when two tones are sounded together), grinding them down into states where notes lose their value and become pulses alone. These pulses are, however, inaudible—an “acoustic no man’s land” as Gubaidulina calls it. Her search for intersections of metrical unity yields a sequence of notes corresponding to the titular lyre and its Pythagorean intervals, with which she inscribes a musical memorial to her late daughter. A mass of orchestral molecules coalesces into a solo violin, yet what seems to be a narrative focal point is more accurately heard as an obfuscation of linear storytelling. Beneath its glassine surface beats a heart of ash, reaching out toward the cellos for confirmation of purpose. Bow slaps and other percussive elements—a triangle here and snare drum there, along with touches of marimba and tympani—thread the soloist’s every needle. Strings work dichotomously between high and low, forging an inner realm between them and, at one point, lapsing into one of the most foreboding pizzicato passages of modern music. Kremer’s mastery labors in the service of Gubaidulina’s own, evoking her acute sense of mythological becoming by a thread of breath and mirror’s glint.

The album’s title composition, written in 1997 and revised in 1998, bears dedication to Mstislav Rostropovich for his 70th birthday. Scored for cello, percussion, and choir, and setting the eponymous poem by St. Francis of Assisi, it treats choral voices as, in Gubaidulina’s term, “secretive.” The cellist is likewise instructed to consolidate his or her playing on the C string, tuning it down to the brink of viability and eventually abandoning the bow altogether for bass drum and flexatone, only to return to the highest reaches of the cello in the final “Glorification of Death.” One might see this piece as an expansion of the light that concludes The Lyre of Orpheus, in the wake of which this catachresis of voices feels like flesh and scars. Where so much of Orpheus assumes a bird’s-eye view, Assisi’s beloved personifications shine through fractured glass, a webbing of damage that sees the sinful subject as a vessel for illumination. The cello gives voice to that illumination as if it were a self-aware body. In a variety of icons—some taut like Christmas carols, others stretched like spiritual elastic—Gubaidulina paints with a brush that manages to be declamatory even as it trembles in abundance of dawn. Of the percussion, marimba figures as an earthly voice, leaving the cellist with the difficult task of transfiguration. Whether or not the music is worthy of such characterization even after the fact will depend on the listener’s willingness to stare into our nearest star.

(To hear samples of Canticle of the Sun, click here.)

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