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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940)
Galina USTVOLSKAYA (b.1919)

Octet (1950)
Composition No. 3 (1975)
Symphony No. 5 Amen (1990)
Kathryn Stott (piano)
Sergei Leiferkus (reciter)
London Musici String Quartet
London Musici/Mark Stephenson
Recorded at St. George’s Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 3-4 December 1990 (Shostakovich) and All Saints’ Church, Petersham, Surrey, 29-31 October 1993 (rest)
BMG-RCA CATALYST 8287665454 2 [67:17]

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Though the great Shostakovich Piano Quintet may appear to be the main bill of fare here, this disc is undoubtedly of chief importance for the other composer featured. Although she is still a relatively obscure figure, more has come to light in recent years about Galina Ustvolskaya, and in particular her often volatile relationship with Shostakovich. He always acknowledged her ability and influence, but she has tended to just be a name on the periphery of Soviet music. That has changed slowly and discs such as this excellent RCA Catalyst reissue does her cause a lot of good. She has also been championed of late by James MacMillan, part of whose Guardian article from October 2003, entitled ‘Unholier than thou’, is quoted on the cover. He has regularly tried to feature her music in concerts and has performed all three of the works on this disc. It’s great to be able to hear for yourself why he rates it so highly.

These are all chamber-size works (even the Symphony) but I was totally unprepared for the power and impact of the opening item, innocuously titled Octet. Her studies with Shostakovich were important to her, and the debt is audibly there in this early piece. As the sleeve-writer rightly comments, one hears the ‘hallmarks of development-through-repetition, accentuated ostinati and unyielding severity’, traits which became a seminal part of her own musical language. But this is powerfully individual music, concentrated and grim in places given its genesis in late-1940s Soviet Union, almost inevitably. Nevertheless it displays an exceptional ear for the sonorities of her small, unusual combination of four violins, two oboes, piano and timpani. The music has a palpable sense of organic growth, with simple melodic strands, harmonic cells repeated and altered into patterns that acquire a real hypnotic pull. One can easily hear why her music has been linked to the minimalist movement, but Ustvolskaya displays far more control over the material and obviously feels condensed brevity is ultimately more powerful than the half-hours (or more) of phased repetition we often get with other composers. The push towards the final movement feels absolutely inevitable, with the visceral shock of seven huge, climactic timpani thwacks - wonderfully recorded - bringing the work to a startling conclusion that leaves one dazed. At first I thought the writer’s suggestion of a firing squad a little fanciful – now I’m not so sure.

The next piece, again with the rather terse and severely modernist title of Composition No. 3, comes from some years later but is recognisably from the same imagination. The dissonance is taken up a notch and the composer does away completely with bar lines to give more rhythmic freedom, but one still senses music that is in a state of searching, music that is suspended, uncertain, questioning. I completely agree with the writer that its philosophical and emotional landscapes suggest Ives’s Unanswered Question, even if the basic tools and language are different. MacMillan considers the subtitle, ‘Benedictus qui venit’, to be the important factor, clearly linking the work to the Catholic mass. Whatever one’s view, there is no doubt that this is seven minutes of seething, uncomfortable angst, brilliantly scored for flutes, bassoons and piano.

The Symphony follows on logically, but as might by now be expected, this is no conventional symphony. A brooding twelve-minute setting of the Lord’s Prayer, it takes the musical and religious dimensions a stage further. It once again shows her predilection for unusual combinations, being scored for five instrumentalists (violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba and percussion) and bass reciter. It is certainly symphonic in its tight structure, use of tiny cells that grow organically and its sense of inevitability. It is also acerbic, sparsely coloured and uncompromising in its depiction of an artist’s glimpse into the dark night of the soul, of the depiction of a nation’s tragedy.

After all this, the Shostakovich Piano Quintet actually comes as light relief. The classical decorum, strong vein of lyrical charm and lack of confrontational gesture provide a good foil for the Ustvolskaya items. It receives here a good, rather than great performance. Competition is stiff, and I felt more than once that key moments were a shade under-characterised. The imperious opening gesture, for instance, does not grab your attention here quite the same as, say, Constantine Orbelian and the Russian Quartet (Russian Disc, coupled with an excellent account of the Schnittke Piano Quintet). The long, neo-Bachian fugue that forms the second movement unfolds with a firm sense of line, but the cheeky scherzo needs a greater sense of merriment and abandon. Likewise, the Intermezzo could be wittier, but I liked the sense of stoic grandeur in the finale. In short, an intelligent, musical reading, that is strong on dignity and well recorded but a little short on irony and wit.

Even if your favourite recording of the Shostakovich Quintet is unlikely to be displaced, this disc demands your attention for the Ustvolskaya works, music that is never comfortable listening but will linger in your memory long after the disc has stopped spinning.

Tony Haywood

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