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Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931): Sonata for Double Bass and Piano (1975)

Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931): Sonata for Double Bass and Piano (1975)

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Lydia Qiu – Piano

Ron Merhavi's First Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 11.1.2004

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina (accent on the third syllable of her surname) was born in 1931 in the Tatar city of Chistopol to a Tatar Muslim father and a Russian mother of Jewish descent. Although she defines herself as Russian Orthodox, she also identifies herself with other religions and faiths and is influenced by Russian mystic philosophers.

Guabidulina’s music caused her confrontations with the Soviet socialist-realist regime: her affinity to the worlds of metaphysics, mysticism and religious symbolism – and her assertion that all of her compositions are, in some way, religious – were anathema to the Soviet authorities. From the 1980s Gubaidulina began to be recognised outside Russia, in particular following the performance of her violin concerto ‘Offertorium’, dedicated to Gidon Kremer who performed it in Europe and the USA. In 1985 she visited the West for the first time, since when commissions for chamber music and orchestral works have come pouring in. In the 1990s she left Russia and moved to Germany where she settled close to Hamburg.

While studying piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatoire in the 1950s, Gubaidulina composed film music as a means of supporting herself financially. This gave her a golden opportunity to experiment with unusual instrumental ensembles and novel techniques of performance and note production.

The Sonata for Double Bass and Piano was composed in 1975 but did not receive its premiere in Moscow until April 1978. Gubaidulina, who has included the double bass in quite a few of her works, recounts: ‘In the 70s I was interested in the concepts of intervals and color…I explored novel ways of sound production in different instruments and wrote music for unusual instrumental combinations: concerto for bassoon and low strings; music for double bass, harp and percussion.’

The deep timbre of the double bass influences the whole sonata, including the piano part, which is not naturally ‘pianistic’; instead of clearly defined chords, scale runs or idiomatic piano passages, there are dense clusters of notes in the lower register of the piano, enriched by high notes or thinly structured chromatic formations in the upper reaches of the piano, far removed from the sound of double bass.

Gubaidulina’s music is highly original, partly because of its spiritual foundation; her exploration of unconventional possibilities of sound production produces a varied palette of colors and wide range of dynamics. This translates itself in the double bass sonata through techniques such as col legno (tapping on the string with the wood of the bow rather than the hair); ricochet (throwing the bow onto the string strong enough for it to bounce off); sul ponticello (playing lightly with the bow near to the bridge which produces a ‘white sound’); and simultaneous glissando and pizzicato.

The opening of the sonata and a significant part of it is in the quintuple meter, which characterizes Russian folk and art song. The work itself, in one movement, moves between a melodic lyricism and a chromaticism that blurs any clear tonality; it is typical of a sonata in its concept of a dialogue – anomalous though this dialogue is in this particular work – between the double bass and piano; however, the perception of time is different from that to which we are accustomed in Western music.

Ron Merhavi


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