BBCSO/Brabbins, Barbican, London

01.15.07
Gidon Kremer
Guardian Unlimited

A Journey of the Soul, the BBC's weekend devoted to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, began with the first complete performance of one of the 75-year-old Soviet-born composer's most personal works. In 2004, Gubaidulina's daughter Nadeyka died; since then, the composer has written a triptych of orchestral pieces that are not an elegy or memorial in a conventional, personal sense, but a set of sharply contrasted expressions of a more universal anxiety and grief.

Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the second and third panels of the Nadeyka triptych, but the first, a concerto for violin, strings and percussion, The Lyre of Orpheus, was played by its dedicatee Gidon Kremer, and his chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica, with his usual gripping intelligence. In some respects, The Lyre is a lament, with the orchestra echoing the soloist's falling phrases, but it's one that also carries the promise of transcendence, as the violin is eventually surrounded by a halo of bells, which Kremer made plausible in a way that would be beyond almost any other soloist.

The BBCSO's performances under Brabbins were equally vivid. But in both the flute concerto, The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair, with Sharon Bezaly as the mannered soloist, and the orchestral A Feast During the Plague, Gubaidulina's gesture-heavy music, with its fondness for instrumental extremes and reliance on apocalyptic gestures, seemed to wear ever thinner.

Receiving its European premiere here, A Feast During the Plague, based on Pushkin's story, is not explicitly programmatic, but the significance of the intrusion of techno-dance music into the already bombastic orchestral sound is hard to mistake. It momentarily threatens to overwhelm, but the end is seraphic; Gubaidulina's distinctive music may ooze conviction, but what it all amounts to is much harder to gauge.