Sofia Gubaidulina Mixes Physical Drama and Sacred Symbols

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Yes, some of the pieces on Daniele Roccato's new album were originally composed for the cello, but they've found their rightful home on the double bass. It helps that Roccato's playing is as bright, articulate and expressive as the cello's, but composer Sofia Gubaidulina's musical language is supremely well-suited to the largest member of the fiddle family.

A post-Soviet master on par with her contemporaries Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt, Gubaidulina constructs her music with great, sacred symbols in mind, as the album's titular piece, In Croce, makes quite clear. One long, cruciform movement, the score calls for two instruments – in this case, the bass and the bayan, a sort of button accordion played here by Massimiliano Pitocco – that begin playing at opposite ends of their ranges and cross in the middle, so that the bass ends the piece by mirroring with stratospheric harmonics the eerily distant fanfare the bayan played at the beginning. 

The effect is all the more striking when the body of the instrument is scaled up to the great proportions of the bass viol. The listener should imagine the player slowly working his left hand down the instrument's vertical axis, from its conventional playing range to its very highest notes, down near the bow, while the right hand saws across the horizontal – all on the one instrument whose contours most closely resemble the human form.

Gubaidulina's music draws much of its power from this sort of theater: from the drama of physical gesture, and from the dialogue between two instruments conversing at cross purposes, as in her Pantomime and her Sonata, both for bass and piano. Roccato and pianist Fabrizio Ottaviucci inhabit their roles like stage actors, giving vivid and expressive readings of extremely exposed solo writing.

Only on a program by a composer as profoundly serious as Gubaidulina could a set of movements as substantial as her Preludes for bass seem like a bit of light listening, but that's how they come across here. Brief but richly musical, these technical studies are a welcome relief after the unrelenting emotional intensity that has come before them.

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