Stark Plays Suslin & Gubaidulina

BIS-2146 cover

SUSLIN: Mobilis for Violin Solo. Sonata capricciosa for Viola & Harpsichord. Grenzübertritt for Viola, Cello & Bass. 1756 for Violin Solo. Capriccio über die Abreise for 2 Violins. GUBAIDULINA: So sei es for Violin, Bass, Piano & Percussion / Nurit Stark, vln 1/vla; Cédric Pascia, hpd/pno; Olga Dowbusch-Lubotsky. cello; Alexander Suslin, bs; Rebecca Beyer, vln 2; Taiko Saito, perc / Bis SACD-2146

Having reviewed Nurit Stark’s latest SACD of music by Bartók, Ligeti, Veress and Ëotvös, the artist directed me to two of her previous discs, of which this is one. I’ll say this for Stark: she is a very serious artist. She doesn’t mess around with lightweight tonal works by Mozart, Schubert or Brahms. She goes straight for the jugular vein in terms of depth of music and intensity of emotion.

Viktor Suslin (1942-2012) was a name entirely new to me, but he was clearly a serious artist as well. He was also apparently very close to annotator Tatjana Frumkis, as the notes tell us that he used to call her often for long conversations. The notes also give us his artistic credo:

Some musical elements (for example a fragment of melody, a rhythmic motif, a certain structure or even the construction of a large-scale work) can gradually develop into an idée fixe, from which one can free oneself by setting them down on paper… The constructive concept has nothing to do with specific compositional techniques… Music that does not possess a constructive concept cannot be saved by any sublime ideas, any expression. The depth of the trace that a work leaves behind depends on its perfection of construction, and nothing else.

What this doesn’t tell you is that Suslin’s music was primarily atonal although not aleatoric. He was also fond of using microtonal passages, particularly when writing for string instruments, which is evident in Mobilis. By and large, his music was typical of the modern Russian school which post-dated Shostakovich and his peers: moody, restless and very deep in expression. Listening to both Mobilis and the Sonata capricciosa, I immediately thought of Galina Ulstvolskaja, the strange, deeply moody composer whose works are so beloved by Patricia Kopatchinskaja. The major difference between Kopatchinskaja and Stark is that the former always has a light, thin sound based on straight tone whereas the latter plays with a rich, full sound, which I happen to prefer. But both are outstanding and deeply committed artists.

There is very little that is capricciosa in this sonata; it is deep, dark music with few if any moments of light to contrast with its shade. Frumkis’ notes tell us that Mobilis is based on the French overture tradition of the 18th century while the Sonata capricciosa also uses a Baroque model, but there are only a few passages in the latter that seemed to me to have any connection in rhythm, and none in harmony or general development, to Baroque music. This is music that Couperin or Rameau might have played were they having a nervous breakdown or horrendous indigestion in the middle of the night.

Grenzübertritt, the title of which translates to Crossing Beyond, is described as a “symbolic” work, its title referring to, as the composer put it, “a purely musical border – crossing from the well-tempered system to a diatonicism beyond that system.” It is also, in terms of mood, a very dangerous work bordering on inner violence. I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Ms. Stark that she left the water running in the bathroom while she was playing this piece. Much of the music played by the three strings together is scored a half-tome or perhaps even a microtone apart, which creates some very edgy moments. At the halfway mark, the bass grumbles microtonally in its lowest depths while the cello and viola, also in a lower range, play mysterious figures above it. A bit later on we hear soft viola (and, I think, cello) tremolos over the bass. They are not “pretty” tremolos. They are sad and speak of a dark night of the soul.

Indeed, if one throws away an attempt to describe this music from a technical standpoint and gives in to pure emotion, this recital is, like the one I previously reviewed, start-to-finish intensity. The only piece I didn’t respond to positively was 1756  for Violin Solo. I didn’t find the music particularly interesting in construction or cohesive in a way that I could follow. But we all hear music differently, so your experience may be quite different from mine. The notes tell us it was inspired by Mozart. I dare you to find a single allusion to anything Mozart ever wrote in it.

The Capriccio über die Abreise is much more interesting and varied in sound. Scored for two violins, Suslin plays around with the concept of the two violins in an ever-changing rhythmic environment. This piece apparently had a personal meaning for the composer, written just a few days after his final decision to leave the then-Soviet Union for good.

Gubaidulina’s So sei es, dedicated to Suslin, was written especially for Stark and this recording, which is its first. The music is in the same vein, slow, dark and moody, but has a bit more underlying momentum about it. The percussion effects are mostly light, consisting of occasional gongs in the background at first, then light chimes and xylophone figures behind the piano solo. The notes refer to the violin and bass as “heroes” who develop “a dramatic dialogue,” but I personally heard it very differently, as a three-way conversation between the two strings and the piano in almost equal measure. The tempo increases slowly but surely in increments as the piece develops, the interaction between the three instruments becoming every tighter and more concise in statements. An almost ferocious rhythmic drive builds up and then falls away as the piano plays soft, high chords with occasional commentary by the bass and percussionist. There is a brief stab at tonality for a few bars as the harmony suddenly coalesces, but then begins to slip apart once again. This is an excellent piece, serious yet fascinating in its subtle interactions between instruments.

Quite a recital. You certainly won’t be hearing any of this music on your local classical FM station any time soon!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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