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Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919-2006)
Trio (1949) [17:00]
Piano Sonata No 5 (1986) [17:50]
Duet (1964] [23:47]
Reinbert de Leeuw (piano), Vera Beths (violin), Harmen de Boer (clarinet)
rec 1991, De Vereeniging, Nijmegen, Netherlands.
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
Hat(now)ART 194 [58:37]

In the early 1990s recordings of Galina Ustvolskaya’s music were extremely rare; she was one of those Soviet composers who literally ‘came in from the cold’ with the onset of Perestroika and Glasnost. At the time I used to manage the CD shop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival; year in, year out; while Schnittke, Denisov, Pärt, Kancheli and the like would literally leap off the tables, I can remember on two or three occasions, on the final Sunday, resignedly packing up the original incarnation of this disc, and the Ustvolskaya recording by The Barton Workshop on Etcetera; she was just too obscure even for HCMF punters (I’m assuming they didn’t already have the discs of course!). Eventually her name began to acquire a tentative foothold in the consciousness of the UK cognoscenti but all too often enthusiasts and critics would rather lazily pigeonhole her with the composers listed above. One extraordinary thing about Ustvolskaya is that she was an exact contemporary of Weinberg, and was born half a generation before these others, yet her music is actually more modern, challenging and I would argue ultimately more rewarding and certainly more moving. It is as honest as music gets. She completely cuts the c**p. There are no precedents. Her music actually does exist in a vacuum. And strives for a life outside.

I recently saw a documentary film “Scream into Space” (see it here) about her visit to the Netherlands shortly before her death in 2006 to oversee Reinbert de Leeuw’s extraordinary performance of her Second Symphony, which was also later filmed in a unique and unforgettable way (that’s here – in superior sound - Youtube certainly offers some extraordinary treasures). To see this tiny woman, stumbling painfully around in the countryside surrounding St. Petersburg, discussing scores and loneliness in her drab and austerely furnished flat, being wheeled through Schiphol Airport sporting an outsized beret and a defiant grin, is in itself a revelation: that such sounds as these could emerge from this particular person almost makes one perceive the music anew: but the truth is one never fails to perceive the music anew; it sounds constantly “anew”. If Sibelius “offered the public pure spring water”, Ustvolskaya typically purveys intense 20-or-so minute ice baths – (the length of the pieces is as unimportant as it is imperceptible) but I guarantee that if you truly pay attention they will invigorate, refresh and move.

The present disc offers a seventh of her meagre output (i.e the 21 works she endorsed as her oeuvre – she disowned the Soviet-type works circumstances forced her to produce). Originally recorded in 1991, it is presented here in re-mastered form. I detect a slight smoothing of the piano sound in its most deafening, abrupt moments, but that’s about the only difference to my ears. It remains a pioneering and important Ustvolskaya document. De Leeuw’s performances on this disc are utterly visceral – it’s as if he’s trying to drag this repertoire into the world, literally kicking and ‘Screaming into Space’ – an affirming cry of “You WILL hear these masterpieces!!”

The Trio of 1949 is the most conventionally ‘classical’ of the pieces on this disc. Shostakovich (who allegedly proposed to her while she was studying at the Leningrad Conservatory) himself quotes from it in his Fifth Quartet. Stylistically it seems to adopt a hinterland between Shostakovich and…..something else that probably never even came to pass. Some have identified gestural similarities with the Messiaen of the Quatuor pour le fin du temps but I suspect this is due simply to the presence of the clarinet in both works. There is something spiritual and pure about this work; having said that, although it has an indefinable Russian melancholy – the piano part offers occasional laconic humour but more often a fragility which approaches collapse and silence – there are moments of gentleness which point to the austerity and loneliness of the later music; it’s hard to describe any Ustvolskaya as tender but bits of the Trio approach tenderness. The clarinet and violin evaporate completely in the last minute and a half, leaving the piano’s fractured thuds and insistent repeated grumblings to contemplate the verities of an uncertain future. De Leeuw, Beths and de Boer truly inhabit this music in this totally riveting performance. While it is well recorded, the two ECM recordings featuring Lubimov/Trostiansky/Rybakov (Misterioso – ECM1959 – review here) and Hinterhäuser/Kopatchinskaja/Bieri (ECM 2329) offer very different interpretive possibilities of this remarkable work in truly glowing sound (although others might argue ‘beautiful’ recording doesn’t suit Ustvolskaya I would vehemently disagree – the ECM sound on both discs truly complements the readings.)

The Piano Sonata No 5 of 1986 is not for the faint hearted. When de Leeuw recorded this account it was still very new – many pianists have since taken it up – indeed there are several recordings of her complete sonatas which fit conveniently onto a single disc. I wonder how much of this work is a furious reaction to Ustvolskaya’s old age, it is brutal, stoic, anguished and violent. The markings on the score instruct the player to batter the bones of their fingers on the keys. De Leeuw certainly plays with violence, but it’s always under control. And listen – really pay attention – spare, fragments of melody emerge at the top of these seemingly impenetrable monster chords, shards of life. There are ten short movements – one of the middle ones seems to consist of the relentless repetition of one particularly doom-laden chord. But somehow, in the context of the whole, it works!! At about 13 minutes there are faintly familiar gestures and sounds- oddly beautiful ones; could this be the ghost of Bartók? or not, a mirage, a coincidence – either way it evaporates pretty quickly. There is something disturbingly touching about the sustained note surviving the obsessive ‘knocking’ at the work’s end. I haven’t heard every other recording, but de Leeuw’s is the account of the Fifth Sonata I turn to most.

The Duet of 1964 is again a completely unique piece. I love the grotesquely innocent title! There is a sense of narrative herein – a bullying authoritarian piano essentially thrashing out against a submissive and thin toned violin from the outset. Beths and de Leeuw give what you think is an expansive account of this extraordinary work; but it pales next to Kopatchinskaja and Hinterhäuser on ECM who extend it by 6 minutes! Frankly they wallow in it, but the more I hear this extraordinary, complex, ambiguous piece, the less I want it to end! In this account, at 14’58 piano motifs emerge which sound like sneering, sardonic, heavy-metal magpies, again baiting the hapless violin; as the piece proceeds from here however the piano adopts a more conciliatory language allowing the violin to grow in confidence. As the work ceases to exist, the listener becomes yet more spellbound; if it requires the single-minded concentration of the performers (and Beths and de Leeuw give it their all), the same is true of the listener. The brain can detect pure soul in this music if one allows it; it becomes something so fragile, beautiful and yet it’s almost impossible to keep it from slipping through your fingers. It’s an awesome work. The descriptor ‘Duet’ doesn’t begin to tell the tale!

Even though the world is waking up to Galina Ustvolskaya, don’t miss the opportunity to hear this once ground-breaking compilation. There is a new and interesting note by Art Lange. Hat Art are to be congratulated for making this disc available again in improved sound. (And for a fresh insight into a truly unique compositional voice, don’t forget to access the above film links!!)

Richard Hanlon



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