Maacha Deubner: Bessonnitsa

Soprano Maacha Deubner, whose voice has graced such masterpieces as Giya Kancheli’s Exil, folds her operatic pleats into the tapestry of the KAPmodern-Ensemble in a program of latter-day chamber music. Bessonnitsa is Russian for “insomnia” and points both to an overarching theme and to Valentin Silvestrov’s eponymous piece for soprano and piano. Reminiscent of Francis Poulenc’s songs, it is the album’s crown jewel. Its flowing sense of time and evocation is like a storm turning into ocean and touching the shore with its final breath. One can also trace a line of continuity between this and Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point for soprano and piano (1979), a set of temporally brief yet spiritually far-reaching evocations of flesh and word in a self-shadowing mode. Deubner navigates them as one might tell the story of their life.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos for soprano and violoncello (1985) begins with the solo voice, floating yet carrying the weight of a monument carved in time. “My soul is a Sphinx,” she sings as if to give that monument a name, setting the immaterial self upon an altar of ruins and unfinished verses. The words come from writer Rimma Dalos, whose texts have also been lovingly set by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Gubaidulina’s approach, however, is never so compact, as proven by the solo cello commentary that follows.

Most of the pieces here belong to the mind and heart of Elena Firsova, for whom the poetry of Ossip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is a touchstone. Sorrows (Tristia II), op. 145 (2013) carries over the same scoring from Gubaudulina’s contribution and bears a dedication to Deubner. The music is at once a reflection of and counterpoint to the poetry, which looks deep into the night to uncover its many layers of shadow:

Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand.

Such words point not to dialogue but to prayers walking parallel paths. They can see but not hear each other, ever caught in cycles of pain and healing.

In Towards the Starlight for soprano and string quartet (2017), receiving its world premiere recording, we have a different side of Mandelstam. Whereas in Sorrows he praised the uninterrupted life, now we get:

I hate the starlight’s
monotonous spectrum.

Such is the duality of consciousness. In the second movement, “How slow the horses go,” we encounter a more sorrowful glow. The poet sees things he cannot see, speaks of things that have no voice. Cello and soprano engage in subliminal communication as delicate pizzicato and high strains give way to flowers of darkness. In the final movement, lyrical self-deprecation:

To read only children’s books,
To cherish only children’s thoughts.

Yet another facet of Mandelstam catches the light of From the Voronezh Notebooks, op. 121 (2009). This cantata, also for soprano and string quartet, moves into organic textures following a nervous prelude. From the raindrops dripping from leaves in “Greens” and the pouncing delicacy of “A Cat” to the frantic trajectories of “In the Sky” and the final “Madness,” fear is never far behind. Deubner expresses these states of mind with lucid projection.

Peppered among Firsova’s more substantial assemblies are three monologues, of which Starry Flute, op. 56 (1992) is the most intimate. Dedicated to the late Aurèle Nicolet, it captures the brilliant flutist’s penchant for extended techniques, each of which naturally extends the breath. Sustained notes float as if made of vapor (and indeed, that is what our life can only be), so that by the end, we are left in stasis with memories of those enchantments now wilting in the hot sun of reality.

Taking account of these works in the aggregate, I am inclined to treat them as a face seen from different angles of light. It smiles and frowns, sleeps and awakes, screams and whispers, showing us that the continuity between states of mind is where our existence is defined.