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Sofia Gubaidulina + Bach

Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931)
Chaconne (1965)

           Gubaidulina composed this piece, one of the earliest in her catalogue, in 1962, when she was still a postgraduate student at the Moscow Conservatory. She wrote it for Marina Mdivani, who took fourth prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition that year, and who gave the first performance, though not until March 1966. Mdivani, according to the composer, “had a powerful chord-playing technique as well as a lively temperament at her disposal,” and those qualities are reflected in the music.

            In keeping with Baroque tradition – soon to be exemplified in this concert – the work is based on an eight-bar bass moving slowly and with gravity, though Gubaidulina makes this a bass in duple time rather than the orthodox triple. Strongly chromatic, the music arrives a little unsteadily back at the B minor from which it had started out, but the thematic outline remains clear through three variations. Then the right hand begins quietly insisting on F sharp and leading the music astray, if still within fields of the Baroque: the piece becomes a toccata and, later, a fugue (with a direct salute to Bach, humorously affectionate). When the bass theme returns it is at first disguised by the right hand, which heads into more obsession with F sharp, now skipping up and down in octaves. Finally comes a full reprise of the theme before, as the right hand keeps repeating chords of B minor, the left hand eventually agrees to settle on the keynote at the bottom of the instrument. Early as the piece is, it makes a powerful effect and projects typical Gubaidulinian matters of determination and conflict, exhilaration and exhaustion.


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
arr. Lars Ulrik Mortensen (b. 1955)

Chaconne in A minor
after the Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004

           Bach may still have been fresh from school, and in his first job, as a violinist at the ducal court in Weimar, when he set about writing a set of six solo pieces for violin, three each of sonatas and partitas, possibly for himself to perform. No doubt he fiddled with the music over the years, before making a fair copy in 1720, when he was at Cöthen.

            The fourth piece in the set is a partita in D minor, whose finale enters in the rhythm of a sarabande: slow, heavy, triple. However, this is a dance also of another kind, on a repeating four-bar theme that descends from D to A, ready to make a rising cadence back to D: the inexorably circling, purposefully driving bass of the chaconne. Sixty-four times it comes, on through a middle section in the major (variations 34-52), all the time supporting counterpoint that implies up to seven simultaneous lines, until finally the voices spiral into the keynote.

            Tonight’s arrangement is by the Danish harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Brahms, who also made a transcription, for piano left hand, had this to say: “If I were to imagine that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”


Johann Sebastian Bach
Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering, BWV 107

           Undoubtedly the most fecund encounter ever between monarch and musician came on May 7, 1747, when Frederick the Great entertained Bach at his court in Potsdam. The young king presented the aging composer with a theme, and asked him to improvise a fugue, which Bach duly did. Back home in Leipzig, Bach returned to the matter, and produced a whole volume, including canons, a trio sonata, and two fugues, for which he used the term “ricercar,” one in three parts and one in six. This collection he published as Das musikalische Opfer (The Musical Offering), with a dedication to the man who had prompted it.

            The six-part ricercar, in C minor, has the second, third, and fourth voices each entering when the immediately preceding voice has got to the end of the royal theme, producing an effect of variation form. Then, with more of a gap, come the fifth and sixth voices to complete the colloquy, which continues through motivic reminiscences and full statements of the theme, to end with it returning in the bass.

            Not unlike the violin chaconne in this respect, the six-part ricercar has been a great source of interest to later musicians. Bach may have envisioned it as a keyboard piece (Frederick at Potsdam had several examples of the then new piano), but it has been arranged countless times, most notably by Webern, whose orchestration, made for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s birth, became the starting point for Gubaidulina’s violin concerto Offertorium (1980). This evening we hear an arrangement for strings by Torsten Johann, kindly made available by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.


Sofia Gubaidulina
Meditation on the Bach Chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit”

           Gubaidulina’s more recent conversations with Bach have included a St. John Passion for the 250th anniversary of the earlier composer’s death, in 2000, and this composition of 1993 for the Bach Society of Bremen. The piece plays for twelve minutes or so. As in Offertorium, Gubaidulina chose music with late-Bach associations – in this case, the chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (Herewith I come before your throne), which the composer’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel added as a kind of appendix when he published his father’s Art of Fugue. Also important to Gubaidulina was evidence that Bach had composed sometimes with significant numbers, which he would derive from names by counting where their letters came in the alphabet; for example, “BACH” (2–1–3–8) yields by summation the number 14. To Bach’s numbers, for his own name and that of Jesus, she added 48, for “SOFIA.”

            The resulting numbers govern the lengths of sections and subsections, in what is a new prelude on the same chorale, scored for harpsichord and solo string quintet. A sense of the uncanny is summoned at once, with imposing harpsichord entries, string tremolandos, and eventually a sustained tritone, before the first line of the chorale is intoned by the double bass. From this point on, much of the music refers to motivic elements in the chorale, in continuing atmospheres of strangeness, with the chorale melody occasionally coming fully into focus. An early phase of somewhat Bartókian string polyphony, for instance, provides a foil for the chorale in violin harmonics with pizzicato viola. Later, the double bass has another solo, tremolando and with sliding bow, from which it moves toward an implacable ostinato drawn from the chorale. Finally, the whole chorale bursts in on full strings, sounding in this setting like an old Russian hymn. The harpsichord, however, has the last word, closing with a sequence of chords whose top notes spell out B–A–C–H.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Triple Concerto in A minor, BWV 1044

I. Allegro
II. Adagio ma non tanto e dolce
III. Alla breve

           Most of Bach’s concertos with one or more solo keyboard instruments are believed to date from the time, between 1729 and 1741, when he was in charge of regular concerts at Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig. Among these dozen or so compositions, the A minor concerto stands out in having two additional soloists, on flute and violin, thereby reproducing the scoring of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which was certainly completed by March 24, 1721, when Bach inscribed his dedication to the lucky margrave. If the A minor concerto indeed dates from around a decade later, one might imagine the composer playing it with his two eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel.

            The first movement is based on an agitated theme in sixteenth notes varied by triplets and dotted rhythms. Elements of the theme are treated in dialogue by the solo flute and violin, but the keyboard comes to assert itself as the dominant solo instrument, with passages where it is unaccompanied. One thing it cannot do, of course, is sustain notes, and this difference from the flute and violin is exploited in widening divergences of speed, to the point where the keyboard is careering in thirty-seconds against whole notes from the other soloists. There is another, cadenza-like stretch of thirty-second notes from the keyboard against a staccato quarter-note pulse from everyone else near the end.

            Only the soloists take part in the slow movement, which opens with an eight-measure duet for flute and keyboard, with pizzicato violin accompaniment, followed by a variation for violin and keyboard with flute accompanying. The key is C major, but the music is soon moving away from this easeful tonality, and that process continues through the continuation, in which the material is developed – first, as before, with flute and keyboard to the fore, then violin and keyboard.

            Aspects of the first two movements are expressed differently in the finale: harmonic darkening, beautiful textures of keyboard with pizzicato strings, duetting flute and violin, and contrasts of speed, with the keyboard in triplet eighth notes against the others’ spacious quarter notes, often heard in chiming descent. There is an explicit cadenza this time for the keyboard soloist (with the invitation to extend it), after which the music maintains its seriousness to the end. Clearly, coffee-house patrons in mid-eighteenth-century Leipzig did not expect just to be entertained.