Occasionally I am asked, if given the chance to meet one of the great composers, whom I would most like to have dinner with. Well, there are any number of candidates. A tougher question is: whose oeuvre, among living composers, would I happily immerse myself in for three consecutive days?
The idea of blitzing a single composer’s music, as the BBC Symphony Orchestra did at the weekend with Sofia Gubaidulina, is a relatively new phenomenon. We are not talking here about an 18th-century composer such as Bach or Haydn, engaged to provide court entertainment week after week. We are dealing – as the BBC Composer Weekend at London’s Barbican Centre has done every January for the past 20 years – with a living person whose music is little known, if at all, to the wider public. It is nevertheless put on a pedestal, discussed and broadcast, without any contrasting voice.
There are several advantages to the format. It takes contemporary classical music out of the ghetto in which it resided for most of the postwar era and into the life of a popular arts centre. It gives us an in-depth awareness of a composer’s voice in a way that would be impossible over several weeks. And it can be marketed more intensively – especially if the composer makes their presence felt, as Gubaidulina did.
But it takes a special creative mind to stand up to such concentrated examination. Some need a broader context if listeners are not to reach saturation by the end of the first concert. And let’s be honest, the most rewarding programmes are those that intelligently juxtapose one composer with another, in a way that silhouettes and complements both: Bruckner and Schubert, say, or Tippett and Beethoven.
That would have been my preference with Gubaidulina, a small, fit septuagenarian, as I discovered several years ago when I interviewed her at her home near Hamburg. I had sought her out after encountering two of her concerto pieces – Offertorium and Canticle of the Sun, both distinguished by their power of suggestion. She talked in riddles that intrigued me.
I do not remember seeing any icons or other religious symbols in her home, but they are everywhere in her music: not just in titles such as Alleluia and The Hour of the Soul but also in the triads (the Holy Trinity) of her piano concerto Introitus and the ascents of The Light of the End, an orchestral drama. After a while they become wearisome.
The problem with Gubaidulina, as I discovered at the weekend, is that every piece is sung from the same hymn-sheet. It is the litany of someone who, like a monk or nun, wants to become detached from the self in order to be open to God’s grace and serve him. It exists in emotional limbo because it is fixated with the idea of unending spiritual pilgrimage. That is the starting point of Gubaidulina’s aesthetic; that is also where it ends.
End of story? Not quite. Gubaidulina’s cold but technically well-expressed music springs from a personality that grew up under eastern influences in the Tatar region of Russia, drew strength from the Orthodox church and endured the censorship of communism. It is a unique concoction that makes a nonsense of attempts to pigeonhole her as part of a “post-Shostakovich” generation in Russian music.
When finally she was allowed to play with the forbidden toy of western avant-garde technique, Gubaidulina ran riot. Like many Russian artists of that era, she is still recovering. She has never forgotten what it was like to be denied freedom of expression – with the result that she remains in overdrive, using huge orchestras (14 clarinets in a 55-strong wind band for The Hour of the Soul) and drawing on every conceivable effect. This weekend alone we had resonating wine glasses in Canticle of the Sun for cello, percussion and chamber choir, rubber balls bouncing on strings in the String Quartet No 4, and an electronic overlay of beat music in A Feast During the Plague for large orchestra (it was not a joke).
Listening to these pieces in quick succession was like a journey backwards in time, to the self-indulgent experimentalism of the 1970s and 1980s avant-garde – except that Gubaidulina’s music avowedly springs from the “Russian soul”, the sort of gift-wrapping that easily hoodwinks western audiences. I could accept the religious symbolism of her Canticle – a hymn to creation with words by St Francis of Assisi – and the Offertorium, a violin concerto that deconstructs a theme of Bach before miraculously transfiguring it, because I felt the music transcended the hair-shirted religiosity that inspired them.
But in too many pieces the emptiness of Gubaidulina’s musical ideas, and her inability to create a sense of development, meant time passed very slowly. The breadth of her stylistic background – from Bach to late modernism via Orthodox chant – fails to mask the music’s bald construction. It is almost entirely gestural; it is also lazy music, constantly relying on the same upward and downward scales, easy contrasts between sonorous extremes, wan cantilenas and solemn chants.
It nevertheless inspired some glorious solo performances from Leonidas Kavakos in Offertorium, Nicholas Hodges in Introitus and Friedrich Lips in an ugly concerto for bayan (a Russian accordion). The BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus made sense of the wailing wall of Alleluia, and the Guildhall and London Symphony Orchestras contributed brilliantly.
Bouquets to Mikhail Jurowski, Mikhail Agrest and Michael Francis, all replacing an indisposed Valery Gergiev, for conducting so well; and to Ekaterina Semenchuk for injecting operatic drama into The Hour of the Soul. As for Gubaidulina, a raspberry would be too cruel, but I cannot help feeling the weekend dented her halo.