Monday 11 March 2013

Totally engrossing performances of Galina Ustvolskaya’s complete piano works on a release from Piano Classics

Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) was born in what was called Petrograd (now St Petersburg), Russia.  From 1934 to 1937 she studied cello at the Leningrad Capella and from 1937 to 1947 attended Dmitri Shostakovich's composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory. Ustvolskaya particularly wanted to study under Shostakovich as she thought him the only composer able to teach her anything.

On graduating from the conservatory Ustvolskaya was at once admitted to the Composers' Union and from 1947 until 1950 became a postgraduate student. In 1948, Ustvolskaya began teaching composition at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, and continued to do so for around 30 years.

Although she was a pupil of Shostakovich she showed little of the influence of his style in her works from the 1950s onwards. As a modernist, she had few public performances and until 1968 none of her works were performed other than patriotic pieces written for official use. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, only her Violin Sonata (1952) was played with any frequency.

Ustvolskaya’s first compositions were a considerable success. In 1946 came her Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani, in 1947, her Piano Sonata No. 1, and, in 1948, Stepan Razin's Dream, for bass and orchestra performed at four successive seasons at the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic. However, performances of her music declined and for some time her music was practically unheard.

Around 1955, after the death of his first wife, it is said that Shostakovich proposed to Ustvolskaya but she refused him and their relationship, that had been extremely close, both musically and personally, came to an end. Shostakovich gave Ustvolskaya many of his manuscripts including the unfinished opera The Gamblers and the Prelude and Fugues Op.87. He also quoted themes from her works in his own works such as the Fifth String Quartet, where he uses a theme form her Clarinet Trio.

Ustvolskaya lived in constant poverty, occasionally composing music for documentaries. From 1961 onwards, despite her lack of money, Ustvolskaya devoted herself to serious composition only. Her music has been described as "a voice from the "Black Hole" of Leningrad, the epicentre of communist terror, the city that suffered so terribly the horrors of war." Hers is a unique voice, music that is expressive, austere and full of tragic pathos attained with the simplest expressive means.

In addition to the Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani and the work for bass and orchestra, Stepan Razin's Dream Ulsvolskaya’s small output includes five symphonies, a number of orchestral works, chamber works, six piano sonatas and Twelve Preludes for piano.

Piano Classics have just released a two CD set of the complete piano works of Galina Ustvolskaya recorded by Ivan Sokolov in 1995. Although there have been other recordings of Ustvolskaya’s piano works, Ivan Sokolov was one of her preferred performers thus making this new release particularly desirable.

Ustvolskaya’s brief four movement Piano Sonata No.1 (1947), lasting just nine minutes, has a somewhat wild opening with notes scattered all over the keyboard. The second movement is faster and more dissonant. The third movement opens darkly and slowly in chords reminiscent of Shostakovich but progresses in a more fragmentary way, with the piano picking out a stark melody interrupted by dissonant chords before ending quietly. This quiet ending is taken up in the opening melancholy theme of the last movement, before a more strident left hand is set against it .The insistent stridency then takes over as the emotional current increases. Eventually the music drops back to the quiet of the opening to conclude, but not before strident notes intrude.

The two movement Piano Sonata No.2 (1949), again lasting around nine minutes, opens quietly with a simple, flowing melody displaying subtle little dissonances. As the music grows slowly louder, it becomes insistently more dramatic. Slowly the music calms and grows quieter, yet there is a questioning that remains as though unanswered.  A halting melody opens the second movement, again quietly, steadily moving forward with a questioning feel. There are occasional louder chords as though demanding a response. The louder music succeeds and takes over before, what appears to be a climax with an ascending motif. However, the music doesn’t let up but continues at this anguished pace and manner, never seeming to resolve. Toward the end it gives way and quietens but still there is a questioning voice.

Ustvolskaya’s one movement Piano Sonata No.3 (1952), at over sixteen minutes, is the longest of her sonatas. A spare melody, gently shifting, is picked out across the keyboard. Soon the music becomes more agitated, louder and more insistent, contrasting against a gentler but equally insistent section.  As the music progresses it becomes more complex with left and right hands working a dissonant melody insistently against each other. The music becomes really dramatic here and quite gripping, but still the quiet voice battles against the louder part. As this conflict continues, Ustvolskaya manages to maintain this incredible, often repeated sequence, always varying, first angry, loud and passionate then quiet and timid.

Eventually the music seems to reach a plateau, with rich chords, before falling back to a quiet thoughtful section, as though working out the drama that has gone before. However, all is not yet over as louder pleading phrases emerge, rising in anger. Suddenly the music quietens and loses energy as the piano slowly picks over the repeated theme. There are loud angry outbursts of the theme as though kicking over the traces, before quietening again to end. There is an insistence, an intrepid determination in this work that shows tremendous strength.

The Piano Sonata No.4 (1957), again lasting around nine minutes, returns to a four movement format. A dissonant chord is repeated to open the first movement before Ustvolskaya’s, by now individual, piano sound enters, slowly picking out a simple little tune. Slowly the music tries to become louder yet falls quietly to a close. Strident, hammering, repeated notes announce the second movement before quietening suddenly when the music becomes gentle, yet quite anxious, as though ready to break out again. It reduces to single notes before suddenly it does break out back to the opening strident sounds, short lived as the quietness returns. Sudden loud notes open the short third movement in a two note, bell like, motif that leads to more complex writing, suddenly cut off. The final movement has, for Ustvolskaya, a slightly lighter opening, but as it makes its faltering way forward the mood soon darkens, with ghostly sounds. The music works its way back to the louder phrases of the opening motif before ending quietly.

The one movement Piano Sonata No.5 (1986), fifteen minutes in length, opens with loud strident phrases separated by pauses. Notes at the top of the keyboard contrast with notes on lowest register, alternating with a gentle melody. Massive dissonant chords appear before the quiet section returns, always varying the same material. Eventually a new repeated rhythmic motif appears alternating with quiet and gentle phrases. A third new rhythmic motif appears, more flowing yet insistent. There follows a quiet section with a gentle melody that continues for some time with occasional loud outbursts. Later there is the return of the massive strident, insistent chords creating, again, a terrific dissonance. They die away to a gentle version of the same motif but still there is the insistent sound quietly in the right hand. More strident outbursts occur that lead to a short working out of the material before once again strident notes appear to signal the end of the work. It is a testament to Ustvolskaya that she could say so much with comparatively little means.

The eight minute Piano Sonata No.6 (1988) opens boldly in the lower register with the right hand dancing across the keyboard, in a counter motif, before the right hand dominates. The left hand chords return, making for a dramatic, dissonant section before the drama lessens a little, whilst maintaining its insistence. The music builds, to massive, stormy music, seemingly never wanting to let up. There are occasional pauses but onward go the crashing chords and dissonances. Halfway through the mood lightens and the chords are a little less strident as the music descends down the keyboard to a quiet section, gently picking out the chords. Soon the loud dissonant sounds re-appear, this time dancing all over the keyboard, gradually descending lower to end on deep chords.

Ustvolskaya’s Twelve Preludes (1953) bring a generally more relaxed feeling.  The first prelude is a quiet little tune, still dissonant, but gently so as it weaves its way around, rising to a slightly louder passage whereas the second prelude opens with a three note motif in a bolder theme which is quickly varied. The gently nostalgic third prelude is a beautiful creation with its gently pleading theme that contrasts with the spiky opening to the fourth prelude which, nevertheless, gives way to a lovely melody, with the spikiness always trying to break through. The fifth prelude brings Ustvolskaya’s rhythmically insistent writing, though with a hesitant, quiet ending whilst the longest prelude, number six, has a more flowing melody set against a hesitant right hand motto. A fascinating little prelude.

A fuller piano sound opens the fairly sparkling seventh prelude, full of movement with a gentle interlude before the eighth prelude brings, once again, Ustvolskaya’s sound of insistent, dissonant writing, reminiscent of the sonatas in a fast flowing piece. Prelude number nine has startlingly rapid piano phrases that, in this short prelude, hurtle forward almost with the feel of a moto perpetuem before being cut suddenly short. The tenth prelude is mournful, quiet and melodic. It rises slightly as it progresses but drops to a quiet end. The eleventh prelude has a descending, dissonant melody with some angrier chords, ending quietly and the twelfth and final prelude a dancing melody full of Ustvolskaya’s slight hesitations.

Ustvolskaya packs so much into these short, seemingly repetitive sonatas that they are totally engrossing. There is no doubt that Ustvolskaya was a uniquely gifted composer and these recordings made by a pianist approved by the composer are a must for anyone interested in Russian music and especially those interested in one of Shostakovich’s most talented pupils.

The recording made in the Studio of Moscow Radio is good except for a poor edit at the end of Track 1 on CD 1. Ivan Sokolov is an excellent advocate of Ustvolskaya’s music. Whilst the playing times for each disc are 68 minutes and 18 minutes respectively, this issue is available for the price of one CD.

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