Since moving to London in September, I’ve remained highly impressed and encouraged by the capital’s concert attendance levels. I’ve grown up with constant Doomsday prophesies of the imminent demise of Classical music – I think everyone has, actually. So it was with a renewed wave of familiar province-inspired disappointment that I took my place in a more or less deserted Duke’s Hall for a concert of music by Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the most exciting and original voices in contemporary music over the past forty years. As the doors were closing, though, and I was contemplating this curse of the contemporary, something strange and unexpected happened. The rows of seats behind me appeared suddenly filled, by youngsters with the startled eyes of newfound freedom from the practice room. These were students, that mythical breed of music-lovers, here to gambol in the delights of startling music performed by their esteemed confreres. It was a beautiful, heart-warming sight.

Sofia Gubaidulina, © Japan Art Association, The Sankei Shimbun
Sofia Gubaidulina,
© Japan Art Association, The Sankei Shimbun

So, too, was witnessing those performers engaging with, and truly feeling, Gubaidulina’s music. Ksenia Sidorova and her accordion began the concert with De profundis, a piece whose inspiration is religious imagery – as is that of much of Gubaidulina’s work. The title comes from Psalm 130, ‘Out of the depths I cry to thee O Lord’, a phrase represented pictorially in the opening passage, which begins in the depths of the accordion’s range and rises gradually to the heights. It is also represented symbolically: the psalmist’s suffering is expressed as the instrument screeches and yelps at full force, but is suddenly appeased as an almighty crashing, crushing discord melts into redemptive distant-organ-style passages and the fluttering fragments of angels’ wings. Sidorova’s passionate rendition of such a powerful expression of spiritual agony and relief was enthralling: I couldn’t keep my eyes off that tortuous box as it contorted and contracted, as dexterous fingers ran over it like spiders. What’s more, her understanding of and empathy with the music was intensely moving.

The tangible ethereality of the accordion was again used to uncanny effect in In Croce, performed by Miguel Fernandes (cello) and Bartosz Głowacki (accordion). The title refers to the instrument of Christ’s Passion (the Cross), and as such the music is infused with harsh harmonies based on sustained semitone clashes. The Cross itself is also represented, both architecturally (the work’s structure is based upon the cross shape, each instrument ending with the opening phrase of the other) and motivically (in Bachian melodic cross-shapes and in the eerie, bittersweet, stratospheric arpeggio motive with which the accordion begins and the cello ends the piece). Again, this piece demands highly virtuosic performers. However, unlike De profundis, it also requires intuitive communication between players; here, unfortunately, Fernandes and Głowacki struggled, and there was visible disappointment between the players as they bungled the difficult pianissimo ending.

Masters student Carter Callison’s piece Prelude and Disintegration began the second half, for which Alba Circosta Carcia on the accordion was joined by Servane Le Moller and her E-flat clarinet. It was a great little piece: bright, succinct and not in the least pretentiously over-ambitious. The Prelude, a pensive movement in which the clarinet played over sustained harmonies in the accordion, was clearly influenced by Gubaidulina’s style. Although the Disintegration didn’t particularly live up to its name, it was a playful and energetic contrapuntal movement with a snappy, humorous ending that earned a chuckle and a well-deserved warm reception for performers and composer.

Gubaidulina returned for the concert’s final work, Silenzio, performed by Martynas Levickis (accordion), Abe McWilliams (violin) and Lauren Steel (cello). The title’s silence refers to the ideal dynamic for the performers for most of the five-movement work. Restraining their instruments to minimal sound production whilst maintaining an even tone was a challenge well met by the students, whose communication and comprehension was captivating. Extended string dialogues dominate the opening: high in the register, the cello mimics the violin in proportionate imitation. The accordion enters and brings the music down to the depths of its register in the one hand and the heights in the other. A lyrical cello solo, pizzicato ostinati and accordion interjections featured in the central movements, and the ‘relay’ dialogue returned for the final movement, in which, finally, a crescendo erupted into an accordion cadenza. This explosion saps all the music’s energy, and the accordion slumps to a monstrously deep, sacked breathing. As a stratospheric cello and low violin joined it in stasis and then silence, the concert had gone full circle: we had returned de profundis.

This evening was a true joy: seriously engaged student performers and listeners joining with laypeople to experience the remarkable, unique voice of a contemporary creative genius. Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, I’m convinced, has genuine relevance to and resonance with all listeners: that they are prepared to listen is a must.

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