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The Lyre of Orpheus. Gidon Kremer, violin, Kremerata Baltica.
The Canticle of the Sun. Nicolas Altstaedt, cello, Riga Chamber Choir "Kamer…", cond. Maris Sirmais. ECM New Series 2256, 69:20.

by Steve Koenig

Sofia Gubaidulina, now 80 years old, comes from the 1960s Russian avant-garde, well-established within both the free improvisation and classical music scenes. Some of her free improv work can be found on Leo Records anthologies. She's also considered one of the most original East European/Russian mystical composers, not content to let mere softness of tone represent spiritual forces.

The Lyre of Orpheus opens with just the slightest of tintinnabulation, then to slow-progressing slashes of strings. This erstwhile violin concerto, billed as "for violin, percussion and orchestra," has lots of delicious moments, with string glissandi, and parts where the strings play so high they wiggle and whistle. I tend to enjoy fragments of this work more than I do the piece as a whole, which, by the way, is the first part of an extended triptych; still, totally enjoyable.

The Canticle of the Sun, giving the album its title and written for Mstislav Rostropovich, uses similar forces plus a chorus, and uses the same type of material (glissandi, bells, aching cello instead of aching violin). The composer gives Messiaen-style titles to each of the four movements, such as "Glorification of the The Creator, the Maker of the Four Elements: Air, Water, Fire and Earth."

The composition opens with a tinkling which glides into high soprano voice, and then shortly a rich bass voice comes in. The cello and chorus intermingle, the chorus sighing happily, then dancing with bells and triangle.

Cellist Nicolas Alstaedt plays with the most human-voiced expression imaginable, integrating even the most "avant garde" squiggles and scrapes seamlessly with Bach-Suites-like draws. He also fits as one with the chorus and orchestra. The Riga Chamber Choir too is most beautiful and, dare I say, welcoming of tone.

The piece ends with a drone, and cello punctuations which bring to mind George Crumb, then an aching cello melody with resonant percussion, and beautifully sad choral recitation in the final movement, "Glorification of Death," which ultimately concludes with the chorus sounding at peace among star-like tintinnabulation, and the cello trailing off, solo, like a comet's tail.

The Canticle of the Sun is riveting from start to final haunting note.


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