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Galina USTVOLSKAYA (b. 1919)
An Introduction to Galina Ustvolskaya

Trio (1949) [14’57]. Composition No. 2, ‘Dies Irae’ (1972-73) [17’13]. Symphony No. 4 (1985-87) [6’32]. Sonata No. 5 (1986) [15’17].
St Petersburg Soloists, Oleg Malov (piano).
Rec St Petersburg Radio House. DDD


Galina Ustvolskaya’s stature as a questioning, uncompromising musical figure is growing apace. Her small catalogue of works (see speaks of a composer whose gestures are both carefully weighted and concentrated.

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.

Colin Clarke

see also

Galina Ustvolskaya and the Piano by Peter Grahame Woolf

Galina 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]

Galina 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]



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