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Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919-2006)
Young Pioneers’ Suite (1950s) [10:52];
Children’s Suite (1950s) [14:15]
Sports’ Suite (1950s) [12:29]
Poems: I. Lights in the Steppe (1959) [19:45]; II. Hero’s Exploit (1957) [10:06]; III. Poem on Peace (1961) [12:57]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky, Arvids Jansons
Leningrad Radio Youth Symphony Orchestra/Igor Borisoglebsky
Ensemble in Residence Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory/Vladislav Lovrik
Moscow Boys’ Choir/Bogdan Petrenko
Mikhail Turpanov (piano)
rec. 1950s-1960s, 2016. Leningrad
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 96084 [37:50 + 42:51]

This two-disc set from Brilliant shows us an overlooked facet of the music of Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, for many years inextricably associated with the city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg). This is an orchestral face - nothing unusual in that in the case of this composer - but many of these Socialist Realist works show a composer ploughing a furrow for the great luminaries of the USSR. They were written during her thirties and into her forties. We are into an early and largely forgotten vista; not that their style is completely uniform. With one exception the conductors are drawn from the Union’s artistic elite: Arvids Jansons (father of the recently departed Mariss Jansons) and Yevgeny Mravinsky. In general, the selected orchestras hail from the topmost ranks of Leningrad’s musical community. The recordings were made in mono in the 1950s with a few from the early 1960s and one in stereo from 2016. Don’t let any of these factors deter you, but on the other hand do not expect these works to be of a piece with those of the composer’s full maturity.

CD 1 has three multi-movement suites of individually highly polished and illustrative movements. The title of the first (Young Pioneers) speaks volumes. Here we encounter in populist yet carefully crafted and polished terms a gleaming celebration of youth's endeavours. Their ideals in are in heart and beat and step with the ideals of Communist youth culture. These short movements bristle and yearn with long forgotten summers of athletic striving and brightly ringing optimism. The music draws on the same well from which Shostakovich (who had praise for Ustvolskaya, who entered his class as a student in 1939) and Kabalevsky drew sustenance for their piano concertos. It’s a sort of fervent innocence filtered through the clarity achieved by Prokofiev in his A Summer Day and Winter Bonfire orchestral suites. Ustvolskaya was clearly not averse to brazen puppet-like moments. Be assured, there's none of the pumped up bombast (irresistible at times) of pieces such as Shostakovich's Song of the Forests or his cantata The Sun Shines over our Motherland (Erato; Praga). The suites Young Pioneers and Sports are a shade less harmonically complex and peppery than the Children's Suite. These three otherwise overlooked suites on CD 1 run together to just short of 38 minutes and are made up of 27 bright and often eager, ebullient miniature vignettes. There’s lots of piping bird-song in Children’s suite. All 27 miniatures are in spankingly clean and brilliant analogue mono. They’re not entirely over-engineered: on track 4 there’s a stray cough, but as to extraneous noise that’s about it.

The second disc presents three single-movement single-track works. Lights in the steppe is a 20-minute tone poem. It opens in a Kastchei-like gloom where its denizens tend a murkily-lit garden. This is Poem No 1. The music finds pumped up ebullience before being drawn back into the gloom. Before some very eerie writing returns there’s a bleakness and shifting mystery suggestive of Uuno Klami’s Revontulet (11:34). Towards the end a brazen strut emerges, paving the way for brassy victory. It does not end there: space is made for sentimentality and for a striving melody that might suggest Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The second of these three poems is Hero’s Exploit. Here the Leningrad Radio Youth Orchestra stodgily track the music though half of its duration before a seemingly indomitable stride ploughs through doom-laden and oppressive music. Is this in search of optimism or is the composer saying there is contentment in gloom? The final Poem on Peace is the only stereo recording here. It makes clear that the composer will hone her style to her own taste. Along the way there’s a chaotic tinkling piano, discordant puppetry, gawky disturbances, a determined stride, discords and some thuddingly well recorded strident voices. The words are not reproduced in the booklet.

This set was compiled and authorised to coincide with the composer’s birth-year centenary. The liner-note, which is very fully furnished, assures us that the issue was made possible by Alexei Lubimov (a pianist pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus and Lev Naumov and champion of Scriabin and Silvestrov) and the Ustvolskaya Estate and Archive. These largely historic recordings are published in the West for the first time, with the permission of the composer’s Estate.

Early and often easily and surprisingly accessible Ustvolskaya. We hear an authentic voice in vintage recordings refurbished so that they speak with sharply etched clarity.

Rob Barnett

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