This EMI disc contains the world-premiere recordings of two pieces by the profoundly religious Russian-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina. "Canticle to the Sun" is a work for cello, percussion, and choir based on the poem of Francis of Assisi, written for the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It is sung here by the London Voices conducted by Ryusuke Numajiri, with the dedicatee on cello. "Music for Flute, Strings, and Percussion" is just that, performed by members of the London Symphony Orchestra with Emmanuel Pahud on various flutes, conducted by Rostropovich.
"Canticle to the Sun" (1997) is one of Gubaidulina's largest works of the 1990s, and is based on a wonderful inspiration. The poem of Francis of Assisi is perhaps the first work of Italian literature and one of the world's all-time great artistic creations. In it the friar, composing in his Umbrian dialect, glorifies God calling as witnesses the sun, the moon, the stars, water, fire, the earth, life, and even death. The cello is the centre of the piece, its music carries the praise of God upwards through ascending notes and underscores the awesomeness of God's power through haunting descents. However, the cellist occasionally gives up his independent role, emulating the percussionists by beating his instrument with a stick, and even joining them when he puts down his bow and plays a bass drum with a rubber ball.
Gubaidulina says that, recognising that Francis of Assisi was a humble man, she wrote the choral part such that it would stay in the background, putting most of the expression into the writing for cello. I would say she only partially succeeded. Granted, the reading of the text is humble and simple, but most of the moments of ecstasy in the piece come when the choir sings vocalisations ("ah ah ah"). Do you know the choral moment at the end of her JOHANNES-PASSION after the baritone soloist sings "Svershilos'"? That's the sort of rapture we are occasionally treated to here.
This work has been around for less than a decade, but there are already three recordings available. We may take this one as definitive, as Gubaidulina supervised the performance and the cellist who inspired the work performs. The London Voices give a beautifully metaphysical performance, and Rostropovich's cello playing is impeccable. As for the other recordings, on Chandos we find a performance by the Danish National Choir conducted by Stefan Parkman with David Geringas on cello, while on Channel Classics there is a performance by Collegium Vocale Gent conducted by Daniel Reuss with Pieter Wispelwey on cello. Though I do not think their performances of "Canticle" stack up to this one, they are worth seeking out for the other pieces they feature. The Chandos disc has the ghostly a capella "Hommage a Marina Tsvetaeva", while the Channel Classics disc has the "Ten Preludes" for cello and "In Croce" for bayan and cello.
"Music for flutes, strings, and percussion" (1994) is a much more difficult work than the highly-accessible "Canticle", but seems greatly rewarding on repeat listens. It is one of Gubaidulina's few works using flute, and here Pahud plays piccolo, flute, alto flute and bass flute. The flute provides most of the expression in the work. The strings, one half of which is tuned a quarter-tone lower than the other for the well-known "light and dark" effect, serve to set up new material for the flutes to reflect upon. The use of the strings in the work is quite reminiscent of the composer's "Seven Words", and if I'm not mistaken there's a quotation here from that work. Percussion is very restrained, totally absent for most of the work. "Music for flutes..." ends with the musicians creating exotic sounds by breating through their instruments. As the cellist joins the percussionists in "Canticle to the Sun", here the strings ultimately approximate themselves to the flautist. In the end, this proves one of the composer's best instrumental works of the 90's, and it is a pity that it is programmed here after a long and demanding piece, meaning most listeners won't have the energy left to appreciate it.
The liner notes are a bit odd. There are two biographies of the composer within, the second of which doesn't really add anything new after the first. Then there is the problem that the first issue of the disc had botched track division, where the last part of "Canticle to the Sun" and the first movement of "Music for Strings..." are on the same track. This was corrected in later productions of this disc, but maybe your retailer has held this for a while. The only other complaint I have is that Rostropovich's laboured breathing is audible in "Canticle to the Sun".
If you have never heard Gubaidulina's work, "Canticle to the Sun" may be a good introduction, though I think that her symphony "Stimmen ...Verstummen" or her masterpiece JOHANNES-PASSION is even better. "Canticle" is one of her grandest and inventive pieces, and deserves an early place in your exploration of this greatest of contemporary composers.