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James Inverne
Gramophone, July 2011

Ever wondered how precisely a new violin concerto comes into being—the inspiration, the perspiration, the sheer logistics? Wonder no more, as this revealing new documentary follows Sofia Gubaidulina and the work she creates for Anne-Sophie Mutter.

It is all jolly well done and makes for very satisfying viewing. And it’s a salutary reminder of just how far from merely “churned out” the creation of a new work really is.

Philip Clark
Gramophone, July 2011

From commission to premiere, the story of Gubaidulina’s new violin concerto

When Sofia Gubaidulina agreed to write a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2006, the spectre of her earlier, cultishly successful violin and orchestra piece Offertorium created enormous expectation, not least for Gubaidulina herself. This documentary, which feels curiously like an old-school South Bank Show (and I mean that as a compliment), traces the progress of this new violin concerto from shortly after Gubaidulina receives the commission to its premiere performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival.

Some scenes look suspiciously staged to me: is the moment Mutter pulls her copy of the score and violin part out of an envelope really the first time she saw the piece, as inplied? I’ve got doubts, especially as a soloist with her reputation to uphold would, I suspect, rather drink hemlock that sight-read the opening passage of a new concerto with a camera crew present. And there’s an unexpectedly revealing insight into how guarded Mutter is: “No cheating!” she exclaims during a particularly tricky passage, before mumbling, “Not that I would”.

Gubaidulina is very different. She wears her heart on her sleeve and has plenty to say about how she structured her new concerto around the proportions of a Bach chorale, and how she reveres Bach because of his ability to fuse “mathematical principles” with “the fiery current of intuition”. And there are intriguing insights into other personalities, too: there’s the copyist and the critic; and Simon “potty mouth” Rattle, who rehearses in perfect German, then swears like a proper scouser when he makes a mistake. Unless what he actually says is, “I looked it up”.

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, May 2011

Recording staff members make it clear from the beginning that Jan Schmidt-Garre’s documentary tracing Sofia Gubaidulina’s Second Violin Concerto from its genesis to its world premiere performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter at the Lucerne Festival purports to be about the “piece” rather than the composer—hence, perhaps, the movie’s title. Accordingly, performance clips play only an insignificant role: a brief one of Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Bach’s Second Violin Concerto with the Trondheim Soloists, another of Gidon Kremer rehearsing Gubaidulina’s First Concerto, “Offertorium,” with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, several of Mutter going through the solo part at home, later with a pianist in the presence of the composer, then in rehearsal, then in dress rehearsal, and finally at the concert itself (there’s also a snippet from Brahms’s Tragic Overture, which opened the program). As interesting as these may be in themselves, it’s clear that they’ve been included only to further the plot.

The second thread—woven from interviews—that runs through the documentary takes up such topics as the name “Sophia.” It’s Gubaidulina’s first name, Mutter’s second, and the composer makes a great deal of this, ruminating on metaphysical mysteries like the meaning of Sophia, unity, and God (the notes in the box include an interview that develops these themes further). Gubaidulina produces charts and graphs with structures laid out in advance and embellished by squiggles representing musical events. Mathematics pervades this matrix, and she throws around terminology like “Bach numbers” and the (additive) series of Lucas and Fibonacci. Like-minded viewers will no doubt find this fascinating (Bach wasn’t the only composer in his own time to delve into number mysticism—so did Giuseppe Tartini, although some might say after reading his speculations that he actually lost his way in that labyrinth—and plenty of earlier examples come from the Renaissance). Gubaidulina seems to enjoy teasing out the philosophical implications of words, as in the First Concerto, relating its title, “Offertorium,” to the contact of strings and fingers. But in the end, she claims to rely on mathematical exploration in a reaction against simple intuition, and she holds Bach as the archetype of a composer who fuses mathematics with the flow of ideas.

A third strand will perhaps appeal more broadly with its glimpses of the composer, violinist, conductor, and orchestra all encountering the score and its problems in scenes strikingly natural and fresh. Before Mutter has received the score, it seems, we watch Gubaidulina showing her sketches and explaining how she develops ideas. Then Mutter finally receives the score, tries it out, and adds fingerings. She discusses making the “cubes” of ideas flow as a whole. We see the copyist at work on her computer, then Mutter working with an accompanist for the composer. In an ecstatic moment, Gubaidulina exclaims that everything has been understood, absolutely. It’s hard not to be carried along by a joyous outburst like this one. We’re privy to scenes at the orchestra rehearsal, as the musicians—an interviewed oboist, harpsichordist, violist, and pianist among them—discuss fitting their parts into the whole. Gubaidulina sits for a television interview before the concert; then, at last, we watch that concert begin.

For those who have played roles in the creative process, this documentary may be an exercise in nostalgia. For those who haven’t, it should provide an intriguing close-up, perhaps with warts touched up (although one large one remains, which I won’t mention; viewers will find it for themselves) but truthful, nonetheless, it seems to me, from my own experiences with composers. Watching Gubaidulina decide how fast a flute part should be played and Mutter taking up the score for the first time shouldn’t be missed by anyone. Strongly recommended., February 2011

Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto is a different sort of video. It is nothing but a film, and a very well-made one, about Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto No. 2 being performed for the first time, in 2007, by Anne-Sophie Mutter, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. This is a film about music—about one specific piece of music, that is—and also about the contrasting but complementary personalities of the composer and violinist, and about the way their different creative talents came together for the debut of an important work (Gubaidulina’s previous violin concerto was first performed 27 years earlier, in 1980). Clearly, this video is only for people interested in Gubaidulina’s music, a fact that limits its scope; equally clearly, it is aimed at people within that group who are especially curious about the 15-year gestation period of this concerto, which was commissioned in 1992 by conductor and arts patron Paul Sacher. The concerto, subtitled “In tempus praesens” (the first is called “Offertorium”), is a substantial work that showcases both Gubaidulina’s complex style and Mutter’s very considerable artistry. Jan Schmidt-Garre skillfully provides background on composer and soloist alike, interweaving their stories and showing in what way the première of the concerto was a milestone for each. But it is fair to ask why even Gubaidulina’s greatest admirers would want this video instead of Mutter’s performance of the concerto on CD. The 56-minute film does provide context, biographical information and often-fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at the whole process of collaborative creativity in music. It is worth seeing as a film. But those interested primarily in what Gubaidulina has to say musically will be just as happy with Mutter’s CD of the concerto on Deutsche Grammophon as with this video—which, however, Gubaidulina’s biggest fans may want as a supplement to the CD rather than a substitute for it.

Robert Benson, January 2011

Russian composer Sophia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) is a remarkable, imaginative musician. Even in her younger years she was highly criticized for huger unusual ideas on instrumentation, although Shostakovich encouraged her. Recently I heard an air check of a remarkable work she composed in 2002 called The Rider of the White Horse scored for large orchestra and organ, a performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. It is amazing that this diminutive lovely lady could write music of such terrifying grandeur! Unfortunately there is no commercial recording of this stunning music; perhaps it will be included in a future RCO Live issue. In 1980 Gubaidulina wrote Offertorium, her first violin concerto, revising it in 1982 and 1986. Kremer’s magnificent recording, with Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony, is still available on DGG. In 1992, distinguished Swiss conductor and advocate of contemporary music Paul Sacher commissioned Gubaidulina to write a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter, but she was so busy with other works the concerto could not be completed until 2007. As usual with this composer, scoring is unusual—a large orchestra with no violins but much percussion. The premiere was at the Lucerne Festival with Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic directed by Sir Simon Rattle. This splendid documentary is about the writing of the concerto with extensive commentary by the composer and Mutter as well as excerpts from rehearsals. Gubaidulina is charming and unpretentious throughout, with a sense of humor as well, a delight to observer. We also have excerpts from the first violin concerto played by Kremer. This is a fascinating—but frustrating—DVD. Doubtless the performance exists on video, but we don’t see it. Would it not be logical to include it? Still, there is much of value here, and it is a privilege to see this important composer at work.

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