Baiba Skride (violin), VSO/ Otto Tausk: Works by Gabrieli, Gubaidulina and Tchaikovsky, Orpheum, December 1, 2018.


Following on her very fine Korngold performance with the VSO in June 2017, Latvian violinist Baiba Skride now turns to the monumental and challenging first violin concerto of Russian-Tartar composer, Sofia Gubaidulina, entitled Offertorium (1980). The violinist, with the committed collaboration of Otto Tausk and the orchestra, were very much up to the challenge, weaving their way through this complex work with confidence, imagination, and an awareness of its full range of colour and feeling. Keeping up the Russian theme, Tausk also contributed a fresh account of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ Symphony. The VSO distinguished itself throughout, not least the brass section, which also had its own opportunity to shine in Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae that began the concert.

Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) wrote Offertorium for violinist Gidon Kremer (also Latvian) in 1979-1980. Lasting a full 40 minutes, it is a work of great expressive intensity, powerful ideas and compositional mastery, and it has now earned an acclaimed place in the repertoire. My own concert acquaintance dates from seeing Kremer’s interpretation in Boston around 1990. The work is a major project for both soloist and orchestra. First-time listeners may find it daunting, but it is full of rewards, and is worthwhile describing in some detail.

As its title suggests, the work evokes notions of faith and sacrifice. The first third of the work is structured as a set of variations on the Royal Theme from Bach’s The Musical Offering, which appears first in the orchestra, with each note presented discretely by a different woodwind or muted brass instrument. (Webern famously used a similar ‘Klangfarbenmelodie’ technique in his 1935 orchestration of the Ricercar from Bach’s work.) A risk to avoid is allowing each tone to sound as an isolated colour, atomizing the theme. Tausk and the VSO managed a wonderful quasi-legato effect, with both differentiated colours and transitional nuance, shaping the theme as an arc of stained-glass melody. Statements of the Royal Theme in the orchestra alternate with eloquent soliloquys from the solo violinist. With each statement, the theme is progressively truncated by one note from both beginning and end, while the soloist weaves motivic particles from the theme into passionate and many-sided responses and contemplations, and twice soars upwards to sing beatific lyrical themes. A long solo cadenza concludes this part, with blazingly fast multi-stop chords eventually yielding to expansive lyrical melodies. These gradually fall away to a low repeated note under which a somber homophonic choral briefly emerges in the orchestra. Baiba Skride rendered this remarkable range with intelligent compassion and full command of every aspect of her instrument: wonderful intonation, pacing, and colour.

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The following section introduces free imitative counterpoint of solo voices throughout the orchestra. To my ear, this music pays homage to the motivic and expressive content of Beethoven’s late quartets, but less obviously than the preceding Bach tribute. An accompanied violin cadenza eventually emerges from the texture, prompting a kind of ‘scherzo’, with rapid-fire dialogue between soloist and orchestra, another spate of intense double-stops from the soloist, and massive chords in brass that articulate the end of the section. I was impressed with how the performers articulated the complex weaving of polyphonic textures of this middle section, and the orchestral balance and cohesion they achieved.

The closing section is heralded by magical chords high in the strings and winds, like an apparition of the angel of annunciation. This transcendent moment is followed by a massive sonic avalanche in the orchestra, collapsing into rumbling tones in the timpani, basses, and tremolo strings. As this turmoil subsides, the violin emerges with a somber Russian Orthodox chorale tune accompanied by strings, striking bell sounds (produced by piano, harp, gong, and tubular bells), and short lyric comments from the clarinet, flute, oboe. The chorale texture gradually takes on processional character, slowly ascending and gaining massive dimensions. The suspended, high violin ends the chorale with the insistent semitone gestures of its opening soliloquy, over the same motive inverted in the basses. A final cadenza ends on a high quiet sustained note. An unfurling descent in the winds and brass generates another tumultuous collapse, but the violin sustains, supported only by the quietly rumbling timpani.

Skride and Tausk gave a performance of commitment and confident understanding, rendering the piece in high relief with lucid detail and full appreciation of its kaleidoscopic orchestral colours. While Gidon Kremer sometimes pushes past the limits of the instrument into risky Dionysian extremes, Baibe Skride took a more Apollonian approach; she was willing to push to the limit, but still preserved a guiding objective poise. Her soliloquies were passionate and volatile but committed to clarity and transparency. The artists definitely put their own resonating stamp on the work and, by all standards, Baibe Skride is a violinist of genuine artistic imagination.

Vivid Russian colour also pervades Tchaikovsky’s iconic Sixth Symphony ‘Pathetique’. Though written 90 years before the Gubaidulina, both composers share the quest for vivid orchestration, and successfully juxtapose instrumental colour with expressive sensation at both the minute and massive scales. Tchaikovsky acknowledged that his last symphony is programmatic in character, but he would not divulge its story, and his death just 9 days after the premiere has long fueled speculation. The second and third movements narrate dance scenes in the glow of elegant society but with disturbing undercurrents, while the first and last movements frame the larger narrative with extended contemplations of doubt, isolation, and suffering. Tchaikovsky’s orchestration reveals all the colour and expressive powers of every instrument and combination, and the massive brass choirs are simply stupendous. While they sometimes herald an exalted state, they often move with inexorable power through long chromaticized scales that portend the inevitable blast of mortality. 

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The symphony begins with dark and prophetic rustlings in the low winds and strings, and this performance was appropriately lugubrious and ominous, although I found the timbres just a bit diffuse. Maestro Tausk took an animated approach to the first part of Allegro non troppo, but rarely exceeded the dynamic range of a chamber orchestra, lending it a lean and youthful demeanor. Where some conductors unleash a bigger sound much sooner, Tausk saved it for later in the movement, allowing subsequent development to add up to more powerful effect. Even the luscious second theme had relatively light emotional charge in its first sounding: it was youthful and ardent, gratified and even sunny. Only later on did it take on a darker resonance, with hues of nostalgia and hints of regret. At the end of the exposition, one had to note the miraculously long diminuendo from principal clarinetist Jeannette Jonquil, a fading of the glow into silence, presaging the tempestuous development section that hurls the protagonist into life’s tumults. Tausk then gradually allowed the orchestra’s powers to flex, achieving a satisfying novelistic trajectory that increased in expressive depth with the protagonist’s experience.

The Allegro con grazia second movement is a waltz that evokes a highly charged social setting. But this one features an unconventional 5/4 time signature with which Tchaikovsky masterfully generates unusual pulsating movements that simultaneously depict exterior motion and interior sensation. The infatuating melodic curves are lithe and graceful, almost floating above the dance floor. But there are also occasional disruptions, some subtle and others lurching, that depict a protagonist who is in-and-out-of-balance: taken up in the swirling delights of the scene, but also occasionally haunted by feelings of fragility and alienation. Tausk presented this scene with elegant flow and supple tempo, but mainly emphasizing its external pleasures over its more complex interior world. A second dance scene follows in the next movement: ballet music that often evokes the dream-world of ’The Nutcracker’ and is equally memorable for its commanding march. The conductor adopted a brisk, exuberant tempo, featuring clear and balanced instrumental textures, but without allowing too much breathing room. As the brass built to the final climax, the mounting energies suggested a protagonist experiencing only confidence and triumph: there was little hint of the desperation and dread that also underlie this passage. Completely captivated by the apparent victory, the majority of the audience applauded spontaneously as the movement ended. But if they had been lured into a triumphant fantasy, the concluding Adagio lamentoso did bring the jolting return to grimmer realities. Tausk and the entire VSO brought their full sonic and expressive range to the finale, first with suitable tautness, then gradually expanding. The brass players were magnificently powerful in their devastating message at the climax, before the narrative subsided back to the depths from which it began.

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Tausk’s expressive range and strong overall arc produced most affecting results in the finale. Overall, this was a convincing interpretation; fresh in feeling, clear in line and sincere in commitment, though perhaps failing to draw out the full range of internal conflict or dramatic irony at some key points. The maestro coaxed the VSO into a very fine showing: the brass was fully commanding, matched in strength, clarity, and resonance by the strings and winds, and the principals all gave eloquent solos.

The concert opened somewhat unconventionally with two Sacrae Symphoniae (sacred symphonies) by the 16th-century Venetian organist and composer Giovanni Gabrieli. These stately pieces conjure the Byzantine grandeur of San Marco with its golden mosaics and convey noble solemnity and confident faith – a perfect festive proclamation for the holiday season. 

The two works, Canzon per sonar duodecimi toni and Sonata pian’ e forte, would have been played by the brass (and/or wind) instruments of the day. 10 modern brass instruments came together here – tuba, trombones, horns, and trumpets – with the performers standing in an arc at center stage. The VSO brass were in excellent form, exhibiting fine intonation, blend and a polished warm sound. The “pian’ e forte” antiphonal effect in the second symphonia was understated (especially since the players were not separated antiphonally), but still offered pleasing contrasts. While Gabrieli was renowned in his day for his special antiphonal effects, it is apparent that modern instruments allow sounds he could not have ever achieved or imagined. He would have been amazed by a modern brass ensemble sounding 10-voice chords over an impossibly deep fundamental in the tuba. Principal tubist Peder MacLellan provided the mighty foundation for this sonic edifice. Maestro Tausk guided the ensemble in appropriate tempo and warm balance, projecting noble grandeur, impressive but not flashy.


© Richard Kurth 2018