This is the third commercial recording of Sofiya Gubaydulina's Canticle of the Sun, and arguably the best yet, completely captivating from its first seconds to its last bars. A quasi-concerto for cello, chorus, and percussion, based on Saint Francis of Assisi's "Il cantico frate cole" (Hymn to Brother Sun), the Canticle is one of Gubaydulina's most interesting works. Choral abstractions from St. Francis' hymn and coloristic punctuation from the percussion form both backdrop and counterpoint to the cello, which speaks mostly in broad intervallic gestures -- grotesque arpeggiations interspersed with harmonics, glissandos, and trills. The result is a highly atmospheric work that actually takes on beauty from abstraction, rather than glorifying abstraction for its own sake. Wispelwey is the ideal cellist for this work, able to find great personality, even wit, in Gubaydulina's pointillistic writing for the instrument. His sense of interval is more exact than Rostropovich's in his premiere recording, and Wispelwey's instincts for the piece's larger shape and movement also feel spot-on. The music settles in and just seems right. The Collegium Vocale, Gent is similarly excellent. The crystalline treble voices blend eerily with the mallet percussion in the opening movements, and the group as a whole finds more inflection in the choral writing than any group that has previously recorded the work, while still remaining convincingly in the background. Conductor Daniel Reuss does a superb job of sewing the often patchwork texture together, and Carlo Willems, Marc Dufour, and Piet Kuijken, all members of the Prometheus Ensemble, deliver some of the most polished and glistening percussion textures imaginable.
Wispelwey fills out the program with five of Gubaydulina's Preludes (10) for solo cello, and In Croce, for cello and bajan -- perhaps the composer's single best-known work. Although marvelously played, the Preludes don't stand up well in this context, undercut by their own brevity. But In Croce, performed with An Raskin on the bajan, is truly magnificent. Fans of Wispelwey, Gubaydulina, or simply new music will not want to miss this one.