Sofia Gubaidulina has experienced something of a renaissance in later life. Blacklisted as a young composer in the Soviet Union, the Russian received wider recognition in the 1980s in a large part thanks to Gidon Kremer, the champion of her first violin concerto, Offertorium. Last weekend, in celebration of the composer’s 85th birthday year, the Berliner Philharmoniker was joined by the Latvian violinist for a performance of her second concerto, In tempus praesens.

Gidon Kremer © Paolo Pellegrin | Magnum Photos
Gidon Kremer
© Paolo Pellegrin | Magnum Photos

Having premiered the piece in 2007 under Simon Rattle with Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Berlin Phil was tonight led by Christian Thielemann, one-time contender to succeed Rattle when he leaves in 2018, and another champion of Gubaidulina. Next year, Thielemann will premiere Der Zorn Gottes with his Staatskapelle Dresden, where the composer – now based in Hamburg – is currently Capell-Compositrice.

Although conceived in part mathematically (in the documentary Sophia – Biography of a Violin Concerto, the composer shows how the piece developed from her discovery of Fibonacci-style sequences in Bach), In tempus praesens is emotionally raw and visceral. A series of elliptical utterances on the violin are accompanied by vivid orchestral elucidations, like a spiritual afterglow. One of the work’s key motifs, an upwardly grasping violin line, is accompanied by a blooming orchestral figure. This phrase, like many others, often reappears, giving the piece a sense of circularity. Through this, the composer hopes to transform our experience of time and hone in on the present moment – In tempus praesens. 

Kremer has a quiet, focused presence, but at the Philharmonie gave an emotionally intense and challenging interpretation of the concerto, right from the tightly coiled incantation at the piece’s opening. In the ritualistic fury of the concerto’s centre, Kremer worked himself into a trance. Under Thielemann, the Berliner Philharmoniker brought out the expressionistic complexity of this colouristic score with exactitude.

Like Gubaidulina, Anton Bruckner was deeply spiritual. A devout catholic, his friends complained he had no interests outside music and religion. His Mass no. 3 in F minor was composed just before he left his provincial teaching post in Linz for the promise of Vienna. Hot off the heels after his First Symphony, it reconciles his burgeoning symphonic style with a solemn devotional purpose. 

Thielemann’s interpretation was measured with moments of brilliance. He was careful to sit back on the austere majesty of the opening Kyrie, drawing a sharp contrast with a pacey reading of the exuberant Gloria – a slightly unruly string section made this all the more exhilarating. The Credo, taken at a quick march, started with a restrained jubilance, leaving room to build to a dazzling brightness in the resurrection.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin was, on the whole, disciplined with a full-bodied tone, and whilst the fleeting solo parts are little more than garnish the vocal quartet were sublime. The orchestra was, of course, radiant and weighty throughout, even more so with the added heft of the Philharmonie organ. Thielemann slightly overworked the serene Benedictus, and in the final movements the ensemble lost the tautness with which they had begun. Yet on the whole, he brought lucidity and a steady hand to two works both deeply spiritual in their own way.