Author: Nicole Restle
ca. 2 minutes

Sir Simon Rattle and Sofia Gubaidulina 1990 | Picture: Reinhard Friedrich

When the Berliner Philharmoniker performed a work by Sofia Gubaidulina for the first time in 1990, the Tatar-Russian composer had been one of the leading composers of our time for barely 10 years. Her Alleluia for chorus, boy soprano and orchestra was commissioned by the Berlin Festspiele and premiered by the Philharmoniker. As the Tagesspiegel wrote about the piece, Gubaidulina had never composed so openly rhythmically or with such bright colours before. 

The Chistopol-born composer was influenced by the Stalin era, the Cold War and the rigid cultural policy of the Soviet regime for many years. Her idiosyncratic works attracted little attention in the former Soviet Union, and she made her living writing film music. In 1981, the then 50-year-old made her international breakthrough with the violin concerto Offertory, an exploration of Bach’s Musical Offering, which she composed for the violinist Gidon Kremer.

Music as a sacred dimension

A great admirer of Gubaidulina’s music conducted the Philharmoniker for the first performance of Alleluia: Sir Simon Rattle. After taking office as chief conductor of the orchestra, the works of the composer, who has lived and worked in a small village near Hamburg since 1992, became an integral part of the Philharmoniker’s repertoire. In 2006, Gidon Kremer performed Offertory with the Philharmoniker for the first time. The premiere of the second violin concerto, In tempus praesens, which Gubaidulina wrote for the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter as a commission for the Paul Sacher Foundation, followed a year later at the Lucerne Festival. 

It is a piece which, in the words of the composer, is “about time and the present” and Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. The spiritual connection with the divine cosmos informs not only this work, but Gubaidulina’s entire oeuvre. As the composer revealed in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall, her concerto for percussion ensemble Glorious Percussion, which the Philharmoniker performed in 2009 under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, reflects rhythmic pulsations in its intervals and chords which are present all around the world and in nature. 

In 2010, Vadim Repin was the soloist of her first violin concerto. In December 2016, Christian Thielemann conducts more performances of In tempus praesens with Gidon Kremer as the soloist, who returns to the Berliner Philharmoniker after an absence of 10 years. Then there are also the numerous chamber works by Gubaidulina which are regularly performed by the Philharmoniker’s ensembles. The esteem in which Gubaidulina is held by the Berliner Philharmoniker is something she is particularly pleased about – due, as she gratefully admits, to the first-class opportunities they offer for performances of her music.

Concert excerpt: Gubaidulina's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Sofia Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens, concerto for violin and orchestra, Gidon Kremer (violin), Christian Thielemann (conductor), recorded at the Philharmonie Berlin, December 10, 2016