About this Recording
8.573379 - GUBAIDULINA, S.: Guitar Works (Complete) (Tanenbaum)

Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931)
Complete Guitar Works


One of the most surprising things about working with great composers is that they can find completely new sounds from an instrument to which you have dedicated your life. When I was called to perform the premiere of Repentance during Sofia Gubaidulina’s residency with the San Francisco Symphony in 2009, I had to come up with what the score called a “friction beater”, which was “a small ball of rubber or elastic plastic… fastened onto a springy, resilient steel string (e.g. a piano string)”. That prompted quite a few trips to different stores, and a lot of puzzling over how exactly one can fasten a piano string onto a small ball. But this was Sofia Gubaidulina. She hadn’t written for the guitar since she produced the two early, short pieces heard here, but in the interim she had become celebrated as the great and fearless composer that she is. The rest of the score had fantastic and unusual sounds, and it all made sense, so I figured that she must have a very specific idea here that I just didn’t get. I experimented with this ‘friction beater’ sound, and remained baffled. I finally showed up to the first rehearsal with a variety of options, which she found curious. But then she pulled out her own version, which she had brought all the way from Germany. It made a sound unlike any of mine, and in fact unlike the many devices I had hit strings with in the past. When she heard it, she smiled.

Sofia Gubaidulina has spent much time in the last ten years writing and revising the two big pieces heard here that use multiple guitars. She has clearly found in the guitar a kind of soulfulness and freedom that has spoken to her, and in each case she combines the guitars with the lower strings she frequently favours. Of the Sotto Voce instrumental combination, the composer writes: ‘It fascinated me on account of its dark colour and its potential for contrast between a muted, almost whispered sotto voce sound and that particular sort of expressivity that low-pitched instruments possess’. She has written prolifically for bass in her career, and the bass parts in both of these pieces are virtuosic and multi-dimensional. The cello in Repentance and the viola in Sotto Voce play a kind of lead, with the most searching melodic material, but one comes away with the sense that each instrument has been fully developed as an individual and a society member.

The guitar writing in both pieces is multi-dimensional as well. She writes: ‘The constant endeavour to penetrate the mysterious consonance in the guitars’ chords of harmonics is forever proving itself to be fruitless. And thus we always have to return to the darker shades.’ The guitars act often as a mega instrument in these pieces; there are chordal chorales, hard driving rhythmic sections and longer, free passages where the wheels come off. Guitar 1 has long improvisations in both pieces—in Repentance it is a lightly guided exploration of a ninth fret barré chord, played normally, plucked behind the chord, or done as harmonics on that fret; in Sotto Voce it is with a slide—and in both cases what you hear are my single take and unprepared improvs, complete with a few production noises.

Repentance (2008) for three guitars, cello and bass, was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and was premiered in San Francisco on February 22, 2009. It is the latest and seemingly final version of a piece written a year earlier, Ravvedimento (2007) for cello and guitar quartet. Later in 2007 she created the version called Pentimento for bass and three guitars, dedicated to the bass player Alexander Suslin. Ravvedimento and Repentance are dedicated to the cellist Ivan Monighetti. Although Gubaidulina is deeply religious, and all three titles refer to repenting, this repentance is secular: at long last it is the delivery of a promised piece to a cellist who was an early and long time champion of her music.

The Serenade and Toccata were included in a 1971 edition of guitar works of Soviet composers by the publisher Muzyka. The Serenade, which was republished by Matanya Ophee in his Editions Orphée series, was meant to be relatively easy to play, and has been described by the composer as ‘music for pleasure’. It has a searching, improvisatory character, and it explores the full range of the instrument, from its bottom note to the top. It has gone on to be played and recorded many times. By contrast, the Toccata, recorded here for the first time and almost unknown, is more virtuosic; it has a driving momentum that hardly stops. As in the Serenade, it explores the full range of the guitar.

Sotto Voce for viola, double bass and two guitars was written in 2010 and then revised in 2013. It was also written at the request of Alexander Suslin. Gubaidulina writes: ‘A constantly repeated motif is played on the three lowest (wound) guitar strings. It contains the mystery of a purely acoustic phenomenon: if you move the soft fingertips along the strings, pianissimo, the result is sonorities that are very quiet, muted, dark and totally irrational in pitch. But if you press harder on the strings or run a plectrum across them, then behind the note that remains steady on one pitch, a space opens up for glissando; this can be exploited to achieve the greatest possible expressivity. Behind the steady note-pitch the string possesses an entirely different dimension! During the course of the piece, this motif is repeated countless times, encouraging each of the other instruments to develop its own possibilities of musical expression, as if responding to the urge to reply to the acoustic mystery that the motif constitutes.’

The Sotto Voce score calls for each guitarist to have a round drinking glass—‘as slim as possible and at least 10.5 cm high’—to be used on the guitar strings. As with the Repentance ball, they produce a glissando sound unlike any slide or other device. In over forty years of playing new music, with many a drinking glass at my side, I had never before taken a drinking glass to the strings.

David Tanenbaum

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