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Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919-2006)
Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani (1946) [18:41]
Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
Four Postludes (2004) * [16:48]
Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935)
Sio for String Orchestra, Piano and Percussion (1998) * [16:20]
Hymn 2001 (2001) [6:14]
Elisaveta Blumina (piano)
Jürgen Spitschka (timpani and percussion)
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
rec. 15-19 February 2015, SWR-Funkstudio, Stuttgart, Germany
* World premiere recordings
GRAND PIANO GP678 [58:03]

These are all piano concertante works though only one is actually called a concerto. They all come from what one might call the post-Shostakovich post-Soviet era, Ustvolskaya actually having been a pupil of Shostakovich and all three having been in some disfavour during the Soviet era and only coming to wider notice afterwards. I should note that only Ustvolskaya was actually Russian; Silvestrov is Ukrainian and Kancheli Georgian, though he now lives in Belgium.

Ustvolskaya’s piano concerto is her first acknowledged work and was written during her final year at the Leningrad Conservatoire, at a relatively late age because of the disruption caused by the war. It is in a single movement though actually it falls into sections; a slow movement and a finale can be discerned. It begins with a summoning theme on the piano, reminiscent of the opening of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, and it is developed in a coherent, tonal idiom though with abrupt changes of mood and tempo. It returns at the end in a passage with a relentless insistent rhythm. The mood is not cheerful but is considerably less severe than that of her later works, which are atonal, written for strange combinations of instruments and very bleak. Commentators praise her integrity, which I take as code for the fact that they respect the works but don’t like them. This concerto, however, is both approachable and impressive and has been recorded several times.

The other two composers are a generation younger and have a good deal in common; in fact Silvestrov dedicated his Hymn to Kancheli. Silvestrov sees himself as writing music which deals with time and decay and reflects on memories of earlier music. He said: ‘I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists’. His works are slow-moving, quiet and intensely atmospheric. His masterpiece is generally considered to be his fifth symphony and those interested in his idiom should seek this out – there are several recordings. He likes the piano and there are two previous piano concertante works, available on the ECM label which has championed both him and Kancheli. His Four Postludes here are highly characteristic. He has called a number of works postlude or similar, in which echoes or reminiscences of earlier works are used as the basis of meditations. In these four short movements you can hear snatches of Mahler or Brahms and other unidentifiable fragments, woven together with a glowing radiance, with an occasional sudden chromatic shift to change the mood. His short Hymn is a similar work.

Kancheli is a neo-Romantic, best known for his remarkable cycle of symphonies, mostly in one movement. There are reminiscences of earlier music including folk music in, usually, a quiet texture, but with occasional explosions. There is a feature about him on MWI here. Sio starts with a folk-like melody on a violin played sul ponticello (on the bridge) which leads to some regular patterns which gradually die away to the very edge of audibility. It is a slow-moving, haunting work.

These performances are well prepared and committed. Thomas Sanderling is an experienced conductor of Russian works. Elisaveta Blumina has a lovely delicate tone in the meditative works by Silvestrov and Kancheli but is appropriately robust and somewhat steely in the Ustvolskaya. The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra does not seem a large ensemble but is sufficient for these works. The recording was made in a radio studio but does not lack ambience. The disc was produced with support from the broadcaster Südwestrundfunk, whose contribution is acknowledged. The sleevenote is helpful on the works but tells us nothing about the conductor or soloist. This is a good introduction to all three composers for those who do not know them; devotees of Silvestrov and Kancheli will want to snap up the two premiere recordings.

Stephen Barber
Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Dan Morgan



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