Sofia Gubaidulina was born in Chistopol in the Tatar Soviet Republic in 1931 and grew up in Kazan, at the crossroads, as she once said, of many diverse cultures within the Russian empire. Kazan, an area proportionately rich in craftsmen and artists, was spiritually rich, too. Gubaidulina's own family background embraced Jews and Muslims as well as Christians of Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic persuasions. One of Gubaidulina's earliest musical memories is of her grandmother chanting Islamic prayers. She has said that she considers herself "a daughter of two worlds, whose soul lives in the music of the East and the West". Her personal commitment to the Russian Orthodox faith has not rendered her unmindful of the insights of other religious perspectives. And as with other major composers from the former Soviet Union - from Arvo Pärt to Galina Ustvolskaya - the religious impulse is closely intertwined in her work with the artistic impulse, and one can hardly be discussed in isolation from the other. "There is no more important reason for composing music", Sofia Gubaidulina has said, "than spiritual renewal."
Neither the spiritual conviction inherent in Gubaidulina's work nor her music's originality won her friends in officialdom: "The reason for Soviet hostility lay in the fact that our whole music revealed the unwelcome phenomenon of freedom, of the inner freedom of the personality. The position of inner independence was simply unacceptable, and wherever that was detected in music it was objected to ..."
It was, however, precisely this independence that Shostakovich had welcomed when he praised Gubaidulaina's student studies at the Moscow Conservatory, saying "I want you to continue along your mistaken path".
Shostakovich, Gubaidulina told journalist Karen Campbell, "encouraged me to be myself, no matter what everybody else said." She counts Shostakovich, alongside Webern and Bach, as a crucial influence on her musical thinking, but she has also been influenced by folk and ritual music of the Caucasus and the Far East and too by her experiences - rare amongst contemporary composers - as an improviser. In 1975 she founded, with Viktor Susslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov the (still intermittently operative) free music ensemble Atreya. As they played, she once said, "sonic imagination became one with our ideas. No longer was there a gap between what we heard and what we imagined; sound and soul had become identical." Gubaidulina's knowledge of the potential of concert and folk instruments - how to make them "breathe", how to draw unorthodox sonorities from them - is rooted in these improvisational sound explorations.
"Seven Words" addresses that most difficult of subjects, Christ's suffering and death on the Cross. Not many composers have felt equal to the challenge although Haydn's Seven Words of "Our Saviour on the Cross" (see ECM New Series 1756) is one of the enduring works to approach this theme.
Hermann Conen in the CD booklet: "Sofia Gubaidulina has accepted the challenge of attempting to capture the great mystery in sound. Although the seven movements are, at least initially, clearly separated by string passages, there is no parallelism of word and sound in the traditional sense. It is more a matter of the instruments 'uttering' what cannot be sung or said; they 'speak' with 'instrumental, metaphorical gestures' (Gubaidulina).The cross symbolism palpable throughout the 'Seven Words' begins on the instrumental level: the cello, coming from the art music of 'high culture', stands for what is 'lofty'; the bayan, a button accordion from the sphere of Russian folk music. Although the sound production is totally different (bowed strings, metal reeds vibrated by air), the two instruments reveal astonishingly similar sonorities, sometimes to the point of indistinguishability...The music of the string orchestra is devised as a contrast to the harsh chromaticism of the cello/bayan and remains clearly separated during the first two movements. The presto and pianissimo string passages soaring from a note played in unison open up a tonal sphere that rises and falls like the sweep of wings ... From the very first sound a ritualised musical meditation begins, its individual core elements unfolding almost imperceptibly at first and then growing inexorably towards one another."
Elsbeth Moser, who plays the bayan on this recording, is one of Gubaidulina's closest musical associates and dedicatee of several works (including the landmark "Silenzio") and understands the composer's intentions. Her performance of "De Profundis" (composed 1978) is astonishing. Writing of a recent concert, critic Richard Whitehouse noted that the bayan, "in the hands of Elsbeth Moser on the solo 'De Profundis', effortlessly combined the provocation of a new sound resource with the timelessness of a traditional instrument."
The "Ten Preludes" (1974, revised 1999) for cello began life as a set of teaching pieces, with each of the Preludes addressing a different technical consideration, but there is space in these fascinating pieces also for the interpreter to make his own mark. Gubaidulina: "Particularly the last prelude in the cycle gives performers an opportunity to make the work their own . There, improvisatory passages, which every player can interpret in a different way, are interposed in the composed score. I planned this deliberately, to illustrate how an instrumentalist's creative imagination alters musical content."
Boris Pergamenshikov gives his creative imagination free rein here. The Leningrad born cellist has been an important contributor to international concert activity since emigrating to the West in 1977. His varied soloist or chamber music experience has included work with Claudio Abbado, the Amadeus and Alban Berg Quartets, Gidon Kremer, Witold Lutoslawski, Yehudi Menuhin, Krzysztof Penderecki, Mstislav Rostropovich, Andras Schiff, and Sándor Végh.
Pergamenshikov first recorded for ECM in 1985, appearing on a recording from the Lockenhaus Festival where he played music of Shostakovich with Gidon Kremer, Thomas Zehetmair, and Nobuko Imai.
This recording is a further instalment in ECM's continuing collaboration with the Münchener Kammerorchester and Christoph Poppen, which began with the 1999 recording of the album "Funèbre" (ECM New Series 1720) with works by K.A. Hartmann. Other projects are in preparation for release in the near future.
The Münchener Kammerorchester was founded in 1950, and has long had a reputation for adventurous programming. Since Christoph Poppen took over the role of artistic director and chief conductor in 1995, the orchestra has added ever more contemporary music to its repertoire. The orchestra gives more than seventy concerts worldwide each year.
The orchestra has won many prizes including the Musikpreis der Stadt München, and is a three-time winner of the Förderpreis der Ernst von Siemens-Musikstiftung. Their recording of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's music for ECM received the Cannes Classical Award in January 2002.
CD package includes 28 page 3-language booklet with notes on the music of Sofia Gubaidulina by Hermann Conen, and photography by Roberto Masotti.