United Kingdom Gubaidulina, Sibelius: Baiba Skride (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Dima Slobodeniouk (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 8.5.2022. (CS)
Sofia Gubaidulina – Offertorium
Jean Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43
The origin of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium – a violin concerto in the form of a set of free variations – was a conversation 25 years ago with violinist Gidon Kremer, in the back of a taxi. Mundane beginnings, perhaps, but the resulting 35-minute Offertorium has a remarkable musical and spiritual stature. It was premiered by Kremer at the Vienna Festival on 30th May 1981, and subsequently revised in 1982 and 1986, the new versions being presented by Kremer in Berlin and London respectively.
The work is a tribute to J.S. Bach and Webern. Gubaidulina begins by presenting Frederick the Great’s theme for Bach’s Musical Offering as a sort of klangfarbenmelodie, with the individual notes of the theme dispersed and assigned to different instruments, following the procedure adopted by Webern in the 1934-35 Ricercar à 6, an orchestral transcription of the Musical Offering. Gubaidulina has described the compositional process of the work as follows: ‘In each variation, there is a progressive shortening of the theme through omitting first and last notes. […] The theme itself is gradually reduced until it seems to disappear – the central variation is on just one tone.’ The theme is fragmented, inverted, presented in retrograde, built from the inside out, formal coherence being derived from the theme itself from which all else springs. Offertorium is, thus, a homage – an offering – by one musical craftsman to two other great craftsman of the past, but in offering itself up, one note at a time, it is also embodies the notion of ‘sacrifice’. Thus, the work is both tautly structure and spiritual, rigorously crafted and rhapsodic.
That the meditative majesty of the work arises from both the timbral qualities of the score – Gubaidulina uses a large orchestra with an array of percussion, piano, celesta and two harps – and from the poetic expressivity of the solo violin was persuasively articulated in this performance by the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride at the Barbican Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the Russian-born Dima Slobodeniouk. Skride relished the diverse tonal beauties of the soloist’s excursions, which were both delicate and fervent. She sometimes pushed dynamics to extremes, forcing the listening to strain to detect silvery flickers in the stratosphere, or haunting harmonics, but there were vigorous surges too, a power that was lithe and lyrical.
At times there was a steely focus to her playing. The delicate up-bows of the opening were placed with absolute precision, cutting quietly but crisply through woodwind fragments. Here Slobodeniouk made the strata of registers transparent, the solo violin and trombones framing what seemed a vast and deep expanse; it was as if one could feel the orchestra breathing. Elsewhere there was a fluidity, even a dreaminess, about the way she roved in relaxed fashion up and down the fingerboard. Slobodeniouk, too, conducted with a clear but light stroke. Neither he nor Skride made a meal of things, the violinist often turning to the orchestra to acknowledge their soli contributions – indeed, at times this felt more like a concerto for orchestra – and making frequent eye contact with leader Roman Simovic. Lead cellist Rebecca Gilliver excelled in her significant solo passage.
There is a spirituality in Gubaidulina’s sounds which is highly charged and brooding, but here there was a softening at the close in the warm hymnic episode which returns the music to its beginnings, those high, flicked up-bows now set against solo double bass. As Offertorium had unfolded, there had been so much detail and colour to take in that I had sometimes found myself torn between wanting to engage intellectually with the ‘processes’ of the work and letting the instrumental timbres absorb me: to give in, as it were, to the atmospheric delicacy. Such delicacy was sustained in Skride’s encore, Johann Paul von Westhoff’s Imitazione delle Campane, which was shaped with wonderful poetic grace.
If Gubaidulina’s Offertorium left me feeling that I needed greater familiarity with the score for its inner logic to be fully revealed and assimilated within my listening experience, then after the interval the reverse was true, when a work, Sibelius’s Second Symphony, with which I am intimately familiar was made by Slobodeniouk and the LSO to sound utterly fresh and new. From the first tapered string breaths, the sound was full and warm, the currents flowing, the unisons energised. Slobodeniouk never let the Allegretto rest, but neither did it sound rushed. There was strength but never bombast. In the Tempo Andante, ma rubato the conductor trusted the double basses to shape the opening pizzicatos, occasionally offering small hand gestures, but letting the music run its own, true course. Woodwind solos were spacious and refined, but Slobodeniouk didn’t let the music, or musicians, lean back: the accelerando was pressing and urgent, and as he pushed forwards, so the LSO surged willingly. Those wonderful blocks of sound were carved gloriously – as Slobodeniouk’s shoulder muscles clenched and released he seemed a sort of sonic sculptor – and there was a tremendous build up of tension and strength towards the close.
Someone had surely pencilled ‘Molto’ before Sibelius’s Vivacissimo marking. The scherzo almost literally buzzed with excitement as the strings scurried furiously, the contrasting dynamics adding to the air of exhilaration. But, Slobodeniouk turned the corner persuasively into the trio, and was a reassuring guide, coaxing and encouraging the solos to shine through the warm bed of sound, the melodies softly embraced by the prevailing texture. In the Finale: Allegro moderato the strings – no, everyone – was clearly having a ball. While Slobodeniouk made sure the textures in the development section had a chamber-like clarity, there was an underlying sense of anticipation of glories to come. When the climax did arrive, I’m not sure the ensemble was entirely ship-shape – things were flying by then, and there was a certainly air of freedom, but it felt so tremendously liberating, cathartic even, that it didn’t matter. Slobodeniouk kept the collective musical mind of the orchestra focused, though, bringing the dynamic down to a barely-there pianissimo, then letting everyone off the leash for the final surge to the close. A terrific end to an immensely stimulating evening.