I cannot claim any prior familiarity with the music of Galina Ustvolskaya. I am aware of her reputation as one of the most significant Russian composers of the second half of the 20th century, and that she was a student of Shostakovich, who had the highest regard for her and in fact fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. She, however, not only declined that honor but ultimately rejected both the man and his music entirely. Her output was very limited, consisting of only 25 works according to her official catalog, and she apparently wrote nothing in the last 16 years of her life, or at least nothing she published. This set includes everything she wrote for solo piano and is divided between early works (the Preludes and the first four sonatas, composed 1947-57) and those from her later period (the last two sonatas, composed 1986-88).
From the works in this set, and those on the one other Ustvolskaya recording I have in my possession, certain features of her idiom emerge clearly. She writes for traditional musical instruments, in the case of the program under review for a normal piano, played by striking the keys. Her textures vary from the barest and most attenuated to very dense tone clusters. She composes in small units, avoiding extended development —except for the two one-movement sonatas, Nos. 3 and 6, only one movement in the piano works lasts as long as five minutes, and most are less than half that. Her writing is characterized by insistent, regular rhythm and very wide dynamic contrasts. She has a liking for repeated figures and bass ostinatos.
Ustvolskaya, it is reported, refused to explain her music and didn’t want it analyzed. She did accept her friend and confidant Viktor Suslin’s description of her as “a voice from the Black Hole of Leningrad.” As one who spent a considerable amount of time in that magnificent city (now again known under its original name, St. Petersburg) in 1974-75 and 1981-82,1 would hardly be inclined to characterize it in that manner, but the reference here is presumably to the awful suffering of the population during the three-year German siege in World War II, as well as the especially harsh impact of Stalinist terror on the city. Shostakovich, too, was influenced by this experience, but his style is much more overtly emotional. Ustvolskaya’s music seems to me more abstract, objective, and remote, although offering interesting, evocative, and sometimes alarming sonic landscapes.
There is much of interest to be heard in the 12 Preludes of 1953, which open the program on this set. No. 1 is very austere and quiescent, and is followed by the kinetic and threatening No. 2. Nos. 3 and 10 seem rather Impressionistic, while Nos. 4 and 5 offer a contrapuntal texture. No. 7 has a narrative quality, appearing to be telling a story. The Sonata No. 1 of 1947 is one of Ustvolskaya’s earliest acknowledged compositions and is a bit more conservative in style than the rest of the program but is nonetheless an intriguing work, with vivid, sometimes Impressionistic textures and much harmonic interest. The second and final movement of the 1949 Sonata No. 2, written during Stalin’s terrifying last years, has a relentlessness and regimentation that becomes very menacing. The one-movement Sonata No. 3 (1952) is at 16 minutes by far the most extended segment of continuous music on the program, but is sectionalized by repeated tempo changes and contains much variety.
Although this is hardly Rachmaninoff, I also sense more in the way of emotional expression in this piece than in the earlier sonatas or the Preludes, an impression perhaps enhanced by Natalia Andreeva’s urgent pacing. Sonata No. 4, from 1957, seems more spontaneous and less constrained than its predecessors in expression of feeling, with a first movement that suggests weeping and a second that alternates between anger and gloom. The much later Sonata No. 5 is in 10 brief movements, many of which have arresting features: for example, the two hands playing at the far ends of the keyboard, alternating with passages that are almost lyrical in the second movement; the massive tone clusters of the third, fifth, and eighth movements; the left-hand clusters alternating with a single right-hand note in the fourth movement; the ghostliness of the seventh movement; and the hypnotic spell cast by the ninth movement. In the one-movement Sonata No. 6, Ustvolskaya places her own stamp on a favorite device of earlier Russian composers, the imitation of bells.
As I have said, this music is new to me, and I have nothing with which to compare Andreeva’s performances —there are several other recordings of this repertoire, but I haven’t heard any of them. I can detect no shortcomings, however, in Andreeva’s interpretations. Her playing is technically proficient, and she is scrupulous in matters of weighting and dynamics. I never had a sense that her chosen tempo was anything other than completely appropriate for the material at hand. She contributed the detailed program note in the accompanying booklet, and it is clear that she is strongly committed to this music.
The sound of this recording is spacious, vivid, and clear. Close miking probably accounts for a bit of ringing on the piano tone as well as occasionally audible action noise, neither of which are obtrusive.
This release has persuaded me that Galina Ustvolskaya is a very interesting composer, one whose music is well worth exploring, and I recommend it.