She was imprisoned for many years behind the iron curtain, but after the walls collapsed she became a much-praised composer, particularly in the west: Sofia Gubaydulina. Born in 1931 in Tatarstan, the composer studied piano and composition at the Kazan conservatory, and later continued in composition with Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin at the Moscow conservatory.
Until 1992 she lived in Moscow; nowadays she lives in her house in the country, in Appen, near Hamburg. Valery Gergiev gave the world premiere of Gubaydulina’s St. John Passion, a major work for soloists, choir, organ, and orchestra, composed for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and dedicated to Gergiev and the chorus and orchestra of the Mariinski Theatre of St. Petersburg. Since then he has repeated the work a number of times, including a performance in 2002 in his capacity as principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Working for many years in complete isolation and without much official recognition, Gubaydulina produced an extensive and avant-garde instrumental oeuvre for the most unusual instrumental combinations. Since her move to Germany, she has composed one surpassingly inspired work after another.
One of them is ‘The canticle of the sun’ (1997), a cello concerto which is actually a hybrid between cello concerto and choral music, and in fact even more than that: the piece is based on ‘Il cantico frate sole’, the Hymn to Brother Sun of Francis of Assisi, a song of praise dedicated to God, to the sun, to all of creation, but also to death ‘da la quale nullo homo vivente può scappare’ (from which no man can escape). Gubaydulina composed ‘The canticle of the sun’ for the 70th birthday of a man who was, in her words, “the greatest cellist of the 20th century”, “Slava” or Mstistlav Rostropovich, a musician “with a sun-drenched personality”. The work lasts a bit less than 40 minutes and consists of four movements. The first is dedicated to the Creator of the sun and moon, the second to the Creator of the four elements, the third to life, and the fourth to death. In order not to compromise the character of St Francis, holy in the eyes of the composer, she has limited the contribution of the chamber choir and kept it somewhat enigmatic, and delegated the most powerful expression to the cello part and the percussion section. In this way the choir’s contribution has a fragmentary and coloristic effect. In the course of the piece, the cellist has to play at a lower and lower pitch until he reaches the bottom of his range. After that he must still bring forth some scraping sounds by playing below the bridge, rattling a drum, and playing a flexatone with a double bass bow.
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