Let me begin with a general assertion that might put a few backs up, but which I mean absolutely seriously. Has it not struck you, O intelligent Fanfare reader, that most of our major composers were a bloody strange lot—socially dysfunctional, obsessive, hyper-intelligent but with poor inter-personal communication skills, a narrow range of interests, often ritualized turns of behavior? Let’s list just a few folk who, to varying degrees, fit that bill: Alkan, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Brian, Bruckner, Humperdinck, Janácek, Mahler, Martinu, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Skryabin, Stravinsky. And we could extend the list almost indefinitely. I’m told by my psychologist friends that the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” has been retired from official use, but autism is a spectral condition—people are autistic to varying degrees of severity or mildness—and I would submit that most, perhaps all, of the world’s most important classical composers are to be found somewhere on the autistic scale. It’s not a value judgment, any more than observing left-handedness requires you to take a moral position. Moreover, we who write for Fanfare and you who read it will probably observe some signs of at least mild autism in our own behavior: I can’t be bothered with small talk, for example, and I either do something full-on or I don’t do it at all. In a review (in Notes ) of F. James Rybka’s Bohuslav Martinu: The Compulsion to Compose (Scarecrow Press, 2011), where Rybka suggests that Martinu had Asperger’s Syndrome, Erik Entwistle writes: “Associating Martinu with Asperger’s allows the composer’s fecundity to be regarded not with suspicion, but rather as a natural product of his abnormally developed brain, enabling him to compose at an incredible rate of speed. But this raises further questions. How then are we are to understand other highly prolific composers such as Mozart or Milhaud? Must they too be pathologized in order to be understood?” But surely that’s missing the point, which is that Martinu, Mozart, and Milhaud (and Telemann and others) did write an extraordinarily large quantity of music, and that in itself makes them abnormal and is a phenomenon that requires explanation.
What’s all that got to do with Ustvolskaya, who wrote notoriously little music? The point is that unusual fecundity isn’t the mark of every major composer, but a view of the world consistent with some degree of autism is, and there I move on to another generalization that might put some more backs up. Autism predominantly affects men (at a ratio of about 10 to 1); the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen argues that autism accentuates a general disposition of men to be systematizers and of women to be empathizers. And there, I suspect, you have the explanation for the huge preponderance of male over female composers—because many more people with some degree of autism are male than are female, it follows that composers, systematizers par excellence , will more often be men.
Now we come back to Ustvolskaya. The behavior outlined at the outset of Natalia Andreeva’s detailed booklet essays that accompanies her recording of the complete Ustvolskaya piano music (90 minutes of music, presented as a two-for-the-price-of-one twofer) shows the social dysfunctionality characteristic of autism. And if you listen to the music with the possibility of autism in your mind, it suddenly becomes easier, if not to understand it, at least to understand where it comes from.
The 12 Preludes of 1953 postdate the first three piano sonatas (of 1947, 1949, and 1952) and predate the other three (from 1957, 1986, and 1988), and you can hear them as a mid-point in Ustvolskaya’s stylistic evolution, paring back the harmony (what remains is often generated by the counterpoint) and reducing melodies to angular, often repeated, shapes. It may be too hard-edged to be spellbinding, but its incantatory patterns and relentless repetitions do have a hypnotic effect, enhanced by the relative lack of variety in these most single-minded of preludes. Indeed, the unredeemed plainness of the idiom (its fons et origo would seem to be the ox-cart “Bydlo” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures ) allows the differences between the Preludes to show through more strongly than you might initially expect—No. 2 is surprisingly coquettish, for example, and No. 5 is purposive and direct, with an epilogue that barely dares speak. No. 7 likewise swivels between action and stasis, No. 8 is gentle and timorous, No. 9 barrels onwards in a single line propelled by bitonal chords in the left hand, No. 10 seems desperately world-weary, and so on. It says much for Natalia Andreeva that she gets such variety of expression from such self-contained material.
Ustvolskaya’s First Sonata (in four movements but over in just over 10 minutes) shows the same musical mind at work, but at this earlier stage in her development the links with the past are clearer, not least with Shostakovich in the cast of the gestures and melodic lines, an intermittent fondness for Beethovenian for trills, and here and there a hint of a darker Debussy. The two movement No. 2 opens with a listless Andante (not marked as such, since none of the works here bear tempo indications) but it allows rather more forward motion into the second of its two movements, which repeatedly ascends and descends the piano register as if not knowing which way to proceed. The first CD ends with the quarter-hour long Third Sonata which, though formed as a single movement, is strikingly episodic, as though cast from siblings of the Preludes that were to emerge a year later; its variegation ensures contrast, but works against the piece making much of an impression as a whole.
The shorter second disc presents the three remaining sonatas, which cover 31 years as to the six of the first three. No. 4 is, like No. 1, in four brief movements at around 11 minutes. Coming five years after its predecessor, it continues the process whereby points of articulation are leached away. Oddly, in Andreeva’s hands, No. 5 doesn’t seem that far away in stylistic terms from the works of the 1940s and 1950s; indeed, as it is comprised of 10 movements, each around 1–2 minutes in duration, it is easy to look at the work as yet another set of preludes—it has the same changes of mood within its restrained sound world. Where it differs is in the passages of unyielding clusters, but they function here, in Andreeva’s apercu , as an abstraction of bells, underlined by her use of pedal and dynamic variation. The one-movement Sixth Sonata, just over six minutes in length, perhaps most closely justifies the caricature of Ustvolskaya as “the lady with the hammer” earned by her ensemble pieces, but even here Andreeva brings light and variety to Ustvolskaya’s pounding clusters by taking the bell idea further, explaining that the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul has a tower where Belgian and Dutch carillons can be sounded at the same time as the Orthodox Russian bells; and she makes the piece sound like a random walk between these three independently operating systems.
The recordings were made at various times up to 2012 (not specified in the booklet), which accounts for some difference in the acoustic—it’s boomier in some pieces than in in others, and an occasionally close recording can make the pedal mechanism audible to varying degrees. (I normally object to its presence, but I don’t mind it here since it adds to the physicality of the music.) Most importantly, Andreeva gives us more to listen to than had struck me in this seemingly rebarbative music. I still think that autism may lie behind the means of (in)expression, but the witty, dedicated personality recalled in the writings of her students is closer to the surface here.