Galina Ustvolskaya’s stature as a questioning,
uncompromising musical figure is growing apace. Her small catalogue
of works (see www.sikorski.de/en/index.html)
speaks of a composer whose gestures are both carefully weighted
Megadisc Classics has valiantly issued a series
of discs dedicated to her music.
When introducing the music of such an important
figure, it is vital that accompanying documentation is approachable
and relevant. Certainly, an overview of Ustvolskaya and her history
is important, but more on the actual pieces we hear would be good.
Also, the individual members of the St Petersburg Soloists are
not listed. A shame, as Megadisc are obviously embracing the Ustovolskayan
cause wholeheartedly. The booklet advertises six further discs
of her music from this source.
As introductions go, these four pieces span nearly
four decades of Ustvolskaya’s output and give a true picture of
her uncompromising world. This is not to imply that there is no
beauty here, however: the plaintive clarinet solo at the opening
of the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano is proof enough of
that. The piece heaves with long, aching lines. There is certainly
a Shostakovich influence in this early work (he taught her at
one point) which perhaps dissipates in the later pieces.
Composition No. 2 is scored for piano, eight
double-basses and what, when I first heard it, I described as
‘a percussion instrument of some sort’. I believe it is a 43cm
hollow wooden cube. Here austerity, asceticism and just a generally
black, bleak outlook are at their height. Although this is not
the only recording (the Schoenberg Ensemble and Reinbert de Leeuw
have put down Compositions 1-3 on Philips 445 532-2), it certainly
makes an impact in the present incarnation.
The term ‘Symphony’ for a six and a half minute
piece for alto, trumpet, tam-tam and piano may seem to be a misnomer,
but somehow the expressive, ritualistic nature of this piece seems
to make it into a hefty musical statement that belies its brevity.
This is beautiful, hypnotic music deserves to be experienced.
Finally, the Fifth Piano Sonata (played by Oleg
Malov, whose traversal of all six comes on MDC7876) inhabits a
slow-moving world of registral extremes. This harsh, gestural
sound-space does not easily reveal its secrets. Malov enters impressively
into this super-expressive language.
To be recommended, then, but definitely not for
the faint of heart. If you think 53’55 is short measure, you may
just find yourself surprised at how exhausted you feel by the
end of it.
Ustvolskaya and the Piano by
Peter Grahame Woolf
USTVOLSKAYA (born 1919) Piano Concerto (1946)a Symphony No.1
(1955)b Oleg Malov (piano)a; Boris Pinkhasovich, Pavel Semagin
(trebles)b; Ural Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitri Liss Recorded:
Yekaterinenburg Philharmonia, April 2000 MEGADISC MDC 7856 [38:38]
USTVOLSKAYA (born 1919) Symphony No.2 "True and Eternal
Bliss" (1979)a Symphony No.3 "Jesus Messiah, Save Us"
(1983)b Symphony No.4 "Prayer" (1985/7)c Symphony No.5
"Amen" (1989/90)d Oleg Malov (piano)abc; Pavel Nemytov
(voice)ab; Elena Popova (contralto)c; Ural Philharmonic Orchestraab;
Dmitri Lissab; St Petersburg Soloistscd Recorded: Yekaterinenburg
Philharmonia, August and September 1999ab; and St Petersburg Radio
House, October and November 1994cd MEGADISC MDC 7854 [50:07]