Fanfare

Although her music was “composed for the desk drawer” and opposed by Soviet music officialdom, Galina Ustvolskaya was a significant figure even when the concert public barely knew of her. She had a unique spiritual connection with her main composition teacher, Shostakovich. In a letter to her he says, remarkably, “It is not you who are influenced by me; rather, it is I who am influenced by you.” The proof lay in his use of material from Ustvolskaya in his String Quartet No. 5. Behind the imposed silence, she composed her music in a narrow, rigorous, intense style that, for all its constrictions, still speaks Russian. In this excellent recording by one of her most devoted admirers, pianist Natalia Andreeva notes that the first challenge for a performer of Ustvolskaya’s idiom is to find an overall conception of each piece. Andreeva explains that she drew from three sources for her interpretations: Russian folklore, the “black hole of Leningrad’s human suffering,” and religion.

Recognition and publication came late to Ustvolskaya, who was born in 1919, two years after the October Revolution, and wrote her last works, including the Piano Sonata No. 6 (1988) and Symphony No. 5 (1989-90) as the Soviet era came crashing down. She died in 2006, leaving behind around two dozen works, and because the piano was central to most of them, this ear-opening new release gives a deep impression of her musical personality. All of her symphonies include a solo voice, and I’ve seen the last two subtitled “Prayer” and “Amen.” But unlike Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya wasn’t a practicing Christian, and her chief use of religion musically was in chorales and tone clusters that resemble St. Petersburg’s church bells sounding simultaneously —she was reclusive and spent her entire life almost exclusively in her birthplace of St. Petersburg.

How to describe this highly unusual piano music, which was fully formed according to a unique personal system by the time of Sonata No. 1 in 1947? The most commonly applied adjective is “ex­treme” or even “shocking,” because of dynamic markings that range from pppp to fffff —both appear in Sonata No. 6, a one-movement work lasting just under seven minutes that is largely a mass of tone clusters and pedal points. There is extremism also in Sonata No. 5, where the fifth of 10 movements contains a series of 140 tone clusters played in a continuum at a dynamic range from fff to fffff. The composer offered a specific technique for playing these tone clusters with the knuckles. But as the illuminating program booklet notes, it’s peculiar that Ustvolskaya marked all of her piano sonatas to be played expressively. The notes are almost like runes in a private mystical language. Here is where the “magic elixir” that one critic describes either weaves its spell or doesn’t.

Despite her rigorous, constricted technique and the limitation of many passages to a single line, Ustvolskaya came from a spiritual place. “My work routine is considerably different from that of other composers. I write when I get into a state of grace. Afterwards, the work is left to rest for a while, and when its time has come, I will release it. When it’s time doesn’t come, I destroy it,” she once commented. Being forced as an outsider to wait three decades sometimes between composition and premiere wasn’t entirely an imposition, then. She disliked saying anything about her music but insisted, with vigor, that it bore comparison to no other composer, living or dead. The claim seems credible as you listen to Andreeva’s skilled and totally committed readings —she began her personal “Ustvolskaya project” with performances in Chicago as a Fulbright scholar in 2006 and completed it by making these recordings in 2012.

Andreeva holds a doctorate in music, and her program notes are sympathetically thought through: We are drawn lucidly into an output for the piano that can sound like one continuous piece —as some commentators call it—or more plausibly as the evolution of an original artist who rigorously controlled the process of change. Although not tonal, the six sonatas have a natural form of communication, and even though the 12 Preludes are also not organized by keys or any similar ground plan, Ustvolskaya is intuitively emotional. The closest parallel may be a literary one, to Samuel Beckett in his mature phase, where individual words and phrases, with meaningful silences and an absence of narrative, seem almost absurdly pared away, and yet which give the authentic impression of being literature.

This is Vol. 11 in Divine Art’s series devoted to Russian piano music. The recorded sound and the instrument that Andreeva plays in the former Melodiya studio in St. Petersburg are both fine. Personally, I found it liberating to listen to this release; it added a dimension to Soviet music culture that I barely suspected, besides introducing one of the most intriguing Modernist imaginations one could ever imagine surviving under such hostile conditions.

—Huntley Dent