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Galina Ustvolskaya and the Piano

(Peter Grahame Woolf pays tribute to one of Russia's most creative yet little-known geniuses: composer Galina Ustvolskaya)


About ten years ago, whilst interviewing the Swiss contemporary music pianist Marianne Schroeder in Basle about her pioneering and still unrivalled recordings of Scelsi piano suites (hat Art 6006 & 6092) my attention was drawn to what appeared (for her) some uncharacteristically simple piano scores scattered on the studio floor. She did not play on that occasion, but conveyed excitement about her latest enthusiasm, the recent discovery of the music of a hitherto unknown woman composer with an unpronounceable name. Not until 1994 did I experience the overwhelming impact of music by Galina Ustvolskaya (born June 17 1919), an extraordinary composer from the former Soviet Union. The memory of London Musici's British premiere of her 5th symphony remains ineradicable.

Galina Ustvolskaya lives quietly in St Petersburg and does not travel. In the last few years her fame has spread as fast as a forest fire to become legendary, and CDs of her music multiply apace. It says much for her impact upon the musical world that in celebration of her 80th birthday this year, Ustvolskaya's music was the central feature of the annual festival which the Royal Academy of Music devotes each year to a leading living composer, despite there being no expectation that she might attend personally and take part in the teaching programme. She is also to be featured in November at this year's Huddersfield International Festival of Contemporary Music.

Ustvolskaya in her youth became a pupil of Shostakovich, who predicted her world wide renown. Later his friend and respected younger colleague, Shostakovich quoted from her compositions in his own and averred that it was she who had influenced him; it is said that she turned down his marriage proposal! Although not openly censured, she was accused of 'narrowness' and 'obstinacy'. Only since the break up of the Soviet Union has she become well known as a composer of ferocious integrity and complete individuality, shy and reclusive. As with the equally unconventional mid 20th century Italian avant-gardist Giacinto Scelsi (who vowed that anyone who photographed him would not leave alive!) there have until very recently been few pictures of Ustvolskaya, the most familiar worn and decades old.

Rostropovich provides a telling cameo with his recording of the Grand Duet, which he had commissioned in the early 1960s. 'Shy and exceptionally beautiful', she approached the piano timidly to play the newly completed work to him and 'suddenly struck the bass notes with such force, while simultaneously launching into a machine-gun burst in the upper register, that I involuntarily started at the contrast between her personal modesty and her incredibly powerful music'. They never needed to discuss why he did not perform the Grand Duet at that time, which could have led to her expulsion from the Union of Composers, or even to her arrest!

The piano is absolutely central in Ustvolskaya's music, which is direct yet original, instantly recognisable as unlike anyone else's. She does not use bar lines and combines asymmetrical polyphonic combinations with powerful rhythmic drive. Terraced dynamics juxtapose fffff and ppppp in extreme keyboard registers. She stands outside fashion, past or present, hallmarks of her style being unswerving severity and seriousness, presented in a predominantly harsh, hard edged sound spectrum, eschewing the tonal gradations and pedalling subtleties of the best loved piano music. It is bleak, compelling music, neither typically avant garde nor minimalist, cathartic but never comfortable, bravely epitomising the rigours of life in Soviet Russia and the suppression of artistic freedom in the Stalinist era. Ustvolskaya's music is devoid of 'feminine' traits and she believes that separate concerts for women composers humiliate the music.

There are four complete recordings of the six concise Piano Sonatas, which span forty years and fit comfortably onto one CD; timings range from 67.45 (Sokolov) to 76.35 (Denyer). None of them is seriously unsatisfactory and availablility will influence choice. Schroeder on hat ART 6170 has liner notes which speculate on influences ranging from Satie through the stripped down early music of John Cage to the Russian constructivists and Henry Cowell's clusters, which dominate the relentless 6th sonata, ffff or fffff almost throughout, Ustvolskaya's preferred dynamic extremism being at the opposite pole to Feldman's pianissimo palette.

In the booklet supplied with Mark Hinterhäuser's account of the sonatas (col legno wwe 20019) there is a faded, out of focus photo from long ago, and discussion of the piano's capability to express extreme dynamic contrast, utmost differentiation of articulation and the sheer, brutal force constantly demanded by this uncompromising composer. There is however variety in these sonatas, ranging from rare ornamental trills, and even tenderness in the fourth, to obsessive preoccupation with middle C# in the fifth and vehement, frightening reiterated clusters which make the final sixth sonata a draining experience. These are not CDs to play straight through!

Frank Denyer's recording for Conifer Classics ((75605 512622) is notable both for his very personal notes and the intensity of his totally committed performances. He reminds us of Ustvolskaya's spirituality and belief that her music speaks most clearly given in religious settings, representing fear of God, a gaze into the abyss leaving the listener ultimately "dazed and isolated in inner darkness". This recording is indispensable, but my final recommendation for the solo sonatas is the Russian pianist Ivan Sokolov, whose 1996 double CD (Triton 17014) offers the Twelve Preludes in addition to the complete sonatas.

Faint hearted readers may be advised to approach Ustvolskaya through CDs of mixed repertoire with their preferred contemporary composers, or through others Ustvolskaya's own music in which her always distinctive piano writing is heard in often bizarre combinations with other instruments.

Ingrid Carlen, another Swiss specialist, builds a delectable, carefully balanced programme with Ustvolskays's 3rd and 5th sonatas framed by Webern Variations and Boulez Notations, and separated by Silvestrov's Elegy to provide 'a few moments respite and balm' (ECM 1606 449 936-2). Presentation, playing and recording ambience are exemplary. David Arden's mixed programme with Pärt and Górecki may appeal to minimalist music enthusiasts. He has the 6th Sonata with the Twelve Preludes of which his recording features in Ustvolskaya's own list of preferred recordings (Sikorski brochure, 1998). However, Koch's 1995 presentation is deplorable, with Górecki alone featured on the case edge and his name in largest letters on the front with Pärt in much smaller print and Ustvolskaya, whose contribution is longer than either of her bedfellows, is listed seemingly apologetically only on the back. A telling commentary on changing fashions and musical cults! Mark Stevenson and London Musici, who introduced me to the unique sound of Ustvolskaya's music at that memorable St John's Smith Square concert in 1994, have her Octet (piano, four violins, two oboes and timpani) and Composition No. 3 for (piano, four flutes and four bassoons) coupled with Shostakovich's piano quintet (Conifer 75605 51194 2).

BMG's indispensible 'Undesirable Music' series has the Soviet artists who gave the first performances of Ustvolskaya's Piano Concerto and Grand Duet, together with the 3rd piano sonata and the Octet. Although the least expensive of all the CDs reviewed, the recording quality is adequate and it has one of the best commentaries upon her music in its historical context. The single movement Piano Concerto with strings and timpani (1946) is the earliest of her works recorded, and Pavel Serebryakov, with the chamber orchestra of the Leningrad State Philharmonic Society, finds in it a predominant tone of urgency and desperation (BMG/Melodyia Musica Non Grata 74321 49956 2).

Alexei Lubimov, its dedicatee, finds in the Piano Concerto "the aggression born of despair and the prostration of silent prayer" and takes a more expansive view, emphasising perhaps stoical endurance (17'21" as against Serebryakov's 13'28"). On Erato 0630-12709-2 it can be heard alongside an avant-garde concerto by Gubaidulina and post-avant-garde works by Gorecki and Pelecis in well upholstered modern recordings with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Heinrich Schiff.

Lubimov partners Rostropovich, dedicatee of Uvolstkaya's Grand Duet, in the Bonus CD supplied with EMI's Rostropovich - the Russian years. The intensity and strange beauty of their 1996 interpretation of the Grand Duet is overwhelming, and its coupling with late music by Schnittke ideal. This CD demands separate release.

Marianne Schroeder's first CD of Ustvolskaya's music for and with piano (hat ART 6130) includes first recordings of the Twelve Preludes with Composition No. 1 (Dona Nobis Pacem) for piano, piccolo and bass tuba and the Grand Duet (Rohan de Saram, cello). The Preludes of 1953; concise and economical; offer an ideal introduction to Ustvolskaya's musical world and are accessible to amateur pianists (edition sikorski, Exempla Nova 245). Reinbert de Leeuw plays Ustvolskaya's 5th piano sonata between the early clarinet trio of 1949 and a formidable Duet for violin and piano of 1964 (hat ART 6115).


(All FP unless marked M or B)

Piano Sonata No 3; Piano Concerto; Grand Duet; Octet; various Soviet artists,recorded in Leningrad 1970-85 BMG (Melodyia) 74321 49956-2 (B)

Piano Sonatas 1 - 6 and 12 Preludes Ivan Sokolov Triton 17014 (M)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 5, with Boulez, Silvestrov and Webern Ingrid Carlen ECM 1606 449 936-2

Piano Sonata No. 6 and 12 Preludes, with Pärt and Görecki David Arden Koch 3-7301-2 HI

Piano Sonatas 1 - 6 Frank Denyer Conifer 75605 512622

Piano Sonatas 1 - 6 Mark Hinterhäuser col legno wwe 20019

Piano Sonatas 1 - 6 Marianne Schroeder hat ART 6170

12 Preludes, Grand Duet and Composition No. 1 Marianne Schroeder and other artists hat ART 6130

Piano Sonata No 5, Clarinet Trio & Duet for violin and piano Reinbert de Leeuw and other artists hat ART 6115

Piano Concertos by Ustvolskaya, Gubaidulina, Gorecki and Pelecis Alexei Lubimov with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Heinrich Schiff Erato 0630-12709-2

Grand Duet with Schnittke 2nd cello sonata and Epilogue Rostropovich and Alexei Lubimov EMI 7243 5 72029 2 3(nas)

Peter Grahame Woolf


Peter Grahame Woolf

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