Galina Ustvolskaya reminds me of Elvis when once asked who he sounded
like. The great man replied, ‘I don’t sound like nobody’. Ustvolskaya stated
that ‘There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other
composer, living or dead.’ She was a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich from 1939
to 1947, but absorbed little of his style. This is not avant-garde music as
such — the Soviet system would not have tolerated that — yet there is
nothing here that makes reference to Prokofiev, Schnittke or Aram
Khachaturian. I am not sure that the persistent source-critic would be
unable to find some allusion to other composers here and there, but even the
briefest of introductions to this music divulges a sound-world that is far
removed from anything we have come to expect of Soviet Russian music. If I
had to define it, I would describe the sound as being ‘naïve’ – not in a
disparaging manner, but more like some mystical Rosicrucian pieces by Satie
as suggested by Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
. In a British context,
the eccentric composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji also resonates.
Ustvolskaya has been given the soubriquet as ‘The Lady with the Hammer’ and
this is sometimes appropriate. However, much of this music sounds tentative
rather than violent or abrasive. Certainly, there is little in this music
that is ‘easy’ on the ear: there is nothing romantic, neo-classical or
jazz-inspired. It is typically austere.
Galina Ustvolskaya’s catalogue of works includes some 25 (or is it 21?)
pieces written between 1946 and 1990 including five symphonies
(see also review
), the present six piano sonatas and some
chamber music. Her output was limited: she believed in quality over
The piano works presented here were composed over a 39 year period. The
earliest, the Sonata No.1 was written in 1947 and the short Sonata No.6 in
There is an excellent introduction to the composer on
written by Peter Grahame Woolf.
The first-rate liner notes by the present pianist Natalia Andreeva set out
detailed information about all these pieces as well as some interpretive
commentary. Andreeva gives some valuable hints about Ustvolskaya’s style by
way of an analysis of the notation of her scores, which ‘are driven to
extremes’. She mentions an absence of bar lines, restricted time signatures
such as 1/4 and 1/8, use of cluster notation, precise and ‘often extreme’
dynamics varying from fffff
, sometimes virtually
every chord, cluster and note is accented, which results in phenomenally
subtle gradations of tone. There is a brief discussion as to ‘what the music
is about’. Ustvolskaya was reticent in talking about or describing her
music. Natalia Andreeva uses a personal hermeneutic to interpret this music
that refers to Russian folklore, 'the suffering in Leningrad/St
Petersburg' and finally, certain liturgical images such as church
bells and chorales.
I have never heard any of the other versions (Frank Denyer, Markus
Hinterhäuser and Ivan Sokolov) of this music that are currently available,
so I cannot compare them with Andreeva’s interpretation. Yet, the present
pianist contributes well to the bleakness, the barbarity and the abstraction
of this music. She exhibits superb technical mastery of the music.
St Petersburg-born Andreeva combines her huge skill as a pianist with a
strong academic interest. After her musical education at the Rimsky-Korsakov
Musical College and the State Conservatorium of Music she studied in Chicago
as a Fulbright Scholar. In 2013 she completed her PhD in Piano Performance
in Australia at the Sydney Conservatorium and had further studies with the
pianists Professor Viktor Abramov and Andrej Hoteev.
Andreeva has enjoyed a successful recital and recording career in
Australia and Russia. She is currently Lecturer in Piano at the Sydney
Conservatorium. Her Ustvolskaya ‘project’ began in 2006. She has regularly
featured Ustvolskaya’s music in her recitals and finally recorded the
‘complete’ piano works in 2012.
I evaluate Galina Ustvolskaya’s music in two ways. Firstly, it does not
appeal to me in the least: I would not listen to it by choice. Secondly, I
recognise its huge importance and its massive contribution to Russian music.
The exploration and assimilation of these works are at an early stage. I
imagine that some listeners will be repulsed by Ustvolskaya’s musical
language: others will want to join her on a long and intricate journey where
‘no one has gone before’ and may never go again.