GUBAIDULINA: Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos. FIRSOVA: Sorrows. Starry Flute. Towards the Starlight. For Slava. DENISOV: At the Turning Point. SILVESTROV: Bessonnitsa, Homer. FIRSOVA: On the Path to Winter. From the Voronezh Notebooks / Maacha Deubner, sop; Katia Tchemberdji, pno; Ehrengard von Gemmingen, cel; Bettina Lange, fl; Mata Dagan, Suyeon Kang, Christiane Plath, vln; KAPmodern-Ensemble / Genuin GEN 21741
Even after scanning the liner notes, I still can’t figure out why soprano Maacha Deubner, the driving force behind this disc, decided to title it Insomnia. Certainly, her choice of composers is an odd one. The disc is dedicated to Elena Firsova, of whose work I knew nothing prior to hearing this release, and of the other composers chosen the only one whose named I knew was Sofia Gubaidulina—90 years old this year and thumbing her nose at Covid-19.
And it is Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Riimma Dalos that opens the program…written for soprano and cello, although for the first of its two sections solo cello is all you hear, playing strange, edgy figures. Deubner appears in the second half, singing a cappella, a strange Eastern European melody with no fixed tonal center (which does not meant it is altogether atonal, just not tonally settled). It is very much in line with her other compositions. Cello and soprano meet in Elena Firsova’s Sorrows, and I must be honest with you, at first I thought it was a continuation of the Gubaidulina piece. This doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it, for my ears, so heavily influenced by the older composer that it doesn’t seem to be by a different composer at all.
Happily, Deubner is a superb singer. Her voice is fresh, clear and attractive without even a hint of unsteadiness about it, and wonder of wonders, her diction is as clear as a bell. (Has it struck you, as it has struck me, that some of the greatest sopranos in the world today, among them Anu Komsi, Tony Arnold, Sarah Maria Sun and Barbara Hannigan, are all specialists in 20th and 21st century music and not the archaic twitter-bird stuff?) And although I felt that Firsova’s music was derived from Gubaidulina, it is clearly an interesting, well-written piece that holds your attention, not one of these edgy-screamy pieces that just splatter notes all over the page hoping that they coalesce into actual music.
Starry Flute features Bettina Lange, also playing a cappella. This piece is in a similar style but uses more staccato phrases than the pieces for cello which preceded it. By contrast, Towards the Starlight is a fast, edgy, atonal piece for soprano and string quartet, one of the most original and fascinating pieces on the album. Aside from the lyric line for the singer, the music almost defies description, pushing the strings through their entire range and producing unusual effects. The quartet almost plays like a small string orchestra, so much so that I could easily imagine an arrangement of this piece for such a combination. This is also a three-piece suite, of which the second is the most lyrical and most conventionally scored.
When we reach Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point, we hear music that is similar in style to that of Gubaidulina but not identical in style, and for that I was grateful. Yet there is no question that all of the music on this CD is of a sad, melancholy nature. There is no joy in Mudville. Somebody has struck out and these composers are at the ready to convey their anguish and despair. Just two cheery pieces sprinkled in to provide some contrast would have been welcome.
So the decision is yours. If you’re in a good mood and want a CD to bring you down, by golly, this is it. If you’re already feeling somewhat despondent, I highly recommend that you not play this recording unless you want someone to call 911 because you slashed your wrists. Deubner has an excellent voice, all of the musicians are excellent, but there’s only so much misery I can take in a program that runs 83 minutes.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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