Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Absolute Silence as the Climax
[original title: Absolute Silence at the Climax]
AUFBAU 63:23 Nov. 7, 1997 p13
Copyright by Leonard J. Lehrman & AUFBAU
Nov. 2, 1997
826 words

Imagine a work which climaxes with absolute, but metrically-felt, silence as the ninth of its 12 movements, and you will have an idea of the compositional task Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) set herself--and brilliantly fulfilled--in her "Stimmen...verstummen," a large orchestral piece given its N.Y. premiere by the Brooklyn Philharmonic ably and lovingly conducted by Robert Spano this past week.

This was not just a Cagean gimmick, holding an aural mirror up to an audience to listen to itself. Rather, the alternation of effects ranging from the most tonal Wagnerian to the most percussive Bartokian and Pendereckian, with echoes of film and Shostakovichian circus music, constantly held the attention; so that when the hocket-like timpani rolls from the four corners of the stage died away in the eighth movement, the silent ninth movement that followed immediately and lasted for less than a minute possessed an intensity perhaps unlike anything ever heard in a symphony before, this side of opera.

Sounds constantly dissipated upward and inward, as the violins were seated at center instead of at the sides, with all the lower strings downstage, basses in front. Organ and celesta combined with the aforementioned four percussionists, winds, and three offstage violins to produce an eeriness that was both evocative and haunting.

Gubaidulina has come a long way from the beloved but reclusively private teacher, film and experimental composer I first met on the outskirts of Moscow in 1971, and then again in 1985. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, she has chosen to make her home in Germany, as has her contemporary and fellow eclectic, the former Shostakovich disciple Alfred Schnittke (b. 1934). Their colleague Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) remains in Kiev, but has turned from the complex style of his 1960s symphonies to a much simpler, almost New Age harmonic palette. Chamber and vocal works of all three of the former Soviet S's - Schnittke, Shostakovich, and Silvestrov (so why not St. Petersburg's Sergei Slonimsky as well?) - were included in the Brooklyn Philharmonic's afternoon "Interplay" program as prelude to the evening's "After Mahler" concert.

Oksana Krovytska displayed a full mezzo in three songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn but a full Vishnevskaya-like soprano in Shostakovich's late masterwork, the Seven Songs on Poems by Aleksandr Blok, opus 127. Her capable accompanist was Mykola Suk, with first desk string players of the orchestra joining in the three Soviet pieces, including Silvestrov's Three Postludes and Schnittke's bleak Piano Quintet, written in memory of his mother.

The evening program featured the opening Adagio from Mahler's Tenth Symphony (in the completion by Deryck Cooke) and the N.Y. premiere of Zipangu by the late Montreal-born Claude Vivier. The latter served the same function, that of a warm-up piece, as did Bruno Maderna's 1969 Serenata per un satellite, preceding the U.S. premiere of Luciano Berio's double concerto for viola and clarinet, Alternatim, in a concert with the ORT-Orchestra della Toscana conducted by Berio at Carnegie Hall. The major work on that concert, though, was the U.S. premiere of another Berio work, Ofanim (1988-97). Scored for female voice, double boys choir, and instrumental ensemble, the piece was fascinating, mostly for the enormous range demanded from and displayed by mezzo-soprano Esti Kenan Ofri, seductively crawling out of a sack while intoning and slowly gyrating to verses of Ezekiel interspersed with the Song of Songs, in Hebrew, with no supertitles and the lights dimmed so as to preclude following either the text in the program or the score, thoughtfully provided (for the press) by management, along with long essays, lectures, and charts of electronics used to bounce clarinet solos and other sounds around the hall. The overall effect was certainly theatrically effective, but, like the many works Berio wrote for his ex-wife, the late Cathy Berberian, one wonders how many other performers could handle the piece!

In another chamber concert worth noting, the Austrian Cultural Institute presented the Con Brio Ensemble at Merkin Hall in piano trios by Franz Mittler (1893-1970), Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), and Erich Korngold (1897-1957), all Jewish refugees who made their way to America. [Mittler, father of the trio's pianist Diana Mittler-Battipaglia, was the least known of the three composers, making a career primarily as a pedagogue. The Zemlinsky, opus 3, composed at the age of 24, is prescient of greater things to come.]

The Korngold, opus 1, composed at age 12, has to be the most astonishing early work since Mozart or Mendelssohn. Redolent of Straussian and Debussyan influences, yet distinctly original, it foreshadows the composer's operatic talents which would later be turned to use in Hollywood movie scores. All three of the performers, including silver-toned violinist Paul Roczek and bronze-toned cellist Andre Emelianoff, were up to all three of the works' demands, though the ensemble complexities of the Korngold will no doubt be communicated even more masterfully with repeated performances.

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