Bach, Webern and Shostakovich, she says, have been the principal influences on her musical development. All three, to a greater or lesser extent, underwrite the Ciacona for piano of 1962. This is an extraordinary tour de force. On the one hand it is chroma-diatonically tonal: it begins and ends in B minor. On the other it is freely serial: its ground bass, spelt out in octaves at the end and proclaimed horizontally and vertically at the beginning, adds up to a 23-note tone row, using (and variously repeating) all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale and fashioned out of adjacent and dovetailed minor and major thirds rounded off by segments of two whole-tone ascents. This tone row is subjected to processes of inversion, retrograde motion and retrograde inversion. By transposing it to different degrees of the scale, an illusion of changing ‘key’ centres and ‘modulation’ is created. In the spirit of Bach, no less than Brahms (the finale of the Fourth Symphony), Gubaidulina’s Ciacona is in essence both chaconne (a recurrent harmonic sequence) and passacaglia (a recurrent ground bass). Structurally, as a variation cycle, it is rotational. But at the same time, alla the great masters, its outline is informed by subtle departures of the most inventive flexibility. It may open, for instance, pseudo-baroque-like, with a grand statement, Andante maestoso, eight bars long. But in the interests of musico-dramatic need few of its 23 subsequent sections (as many sections as notes of the tone row) – each audibly distinguished by changes of texture, tempo, rhythmic pattern, dynamic level, and keyboard figuration – are confined to this length. Most expand or contract instead.
Aurally and visually, the music – framed, spectrally, by a disembodied Busoni aura – evokes images of Bach and Brahms, or introspective late Beethoven, no less than memories of uncompromising Mussorgsky (the final tableau of Pictures at an Exhibition), of angular Prokofiev. In its journey, old devices come across with revitalized energy: the bizarre più mosso two-part fugal imitation and stretto by inversion of the fourteenth section, for example; the inverted ‘dominant’ pedal points of the twentieth and twenty-first sections, getting faster and faster by progressively shortening note values; the massively monumental return – re-harmonised, blackly pathétique – of the ciacona ‘ground’ in the penultimate ‘chapter’. From blocks of sound to breaths of whispered murmur, from granite-hewn immediacy to cosmically nebulous distance, from thunderous octaves to spare linearity, from densest texture to brightest metallic glitter, is the breadth of its pianistic horizon.
from notes by Ates Orga © 1998