Galina Ustvolskaya reminds me of Elvis when once asked who he sounded like. The great man replied, ‘I don’t sound like nobody’. Ustvolskaya stated that ‘There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.’ She was a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich from 1939 to 1947, but absorbed little of his style. This is not avant-garde music as such — the Soviet system would not have tolerated that — yet there is nothing here that makes reference to Prokofiev, Schnittke or Aram Khachaturian. I am not sure that the persistent source-critic would be unable to find some allusion to other composers here and there, but even the briefest of introductions to this music divulges a sound-world that is far removed from anything we have come to expect of Soviet Russian music. If I had to define it, I would describe the sound as being ‘naïve’ – not in a disparaging manner, but more like some mystical Rosicrucian pieces by Satie as suggested by Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise . In a British context, the eccentric composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji also resonates. Ustvolskaya has been given the soubriquet as ‘The Lady with the Hammer’ and this is sometimes appropriate. However, much of this music sounds tentative rather than violent or abrasive. Certainly, there is little in this music that is ‘easy’ on the ear: there is nothing romantic, neo-classical or jazz-inspired. It is typically austere.
Galina Ustvolskaya’s catalogue of works includes some 25 (or is it 21?) pieces written between 1946 and 1990 including five symphonies, the present six piano sonatas and some chamber music. Her output was limited: she believed in quality over quantity.
The piano works presented here were composed over a 39 year period. The earliest, the Sonata No.1 was written in 1947 and the short Sonata No.6 in 1988.
There is an excellent introduction to the composer on MusicWeb International written by Peter Grahame Woolf.
The first-rate liner notes by the present pianist Natalia Andreeva set out detailed information about all these pieces as well as some interpretive commentary. Andreeva gives some valuable hints about Ustvolskaya’s style by way of an analysis of the notation of her scores, which ‘are driven to extremes’. She mentions an absence of bar lines, restricted time signatures such as 1/4 and 1/8, use of cluster notation, precise and ‘often extreme’ dynamics varying from fffff to ppppp , sometimes virtually every chord, cluster and note is accented, which results in phenomenally subtle gradations of tone. There is a brief discussion as to ‘what the music is about’. Ustvolskaya was reticent in talking about or describing her music. Natalia Andreeva uses a personal hermeneutic to interpret this music that refers to Russian folklore, ‘the suffering in Leningrad/St Petersburg’ and finally, certain liturgical images such as church bells and chorales.
I have never heard any of the other versions (Frank Denyer, Markus Hinterhäuser and Ivan Sokolov) of this music that are currently available, so I cannot compare them with Andreeva’s interpretation. Yet, the present pianist contributes well to the bleakness, the barbarity and the abstraction of this music. She exhibits superb technical mastery of the music.
St Petersburg-born Andreeva combines her huge skill as a pianist with a strong academic interest. After her musical education at the Rimsky-Korsakov Musical College and the State Conservatorium of Music she studied in Chicago as a Fulbright Scholar. In 2013 she completed her PhD in Piano Performance in Australia at the Sydney Conservatorium and had further studies with the pianists Professor Viktor Abramov and Andrej Hoteev.
Andreeva has enjoyed a successful recital and recording career in Australia and Russia. She is currently Lecturer in Piano at the Sydney Conservatorium. Her Ustvolskaya ‘project’ began in 2006. She has regularly featured Ustvolskaya’s music in her recitals and finally recorded the ‘complete’ piano works in 2012.
I evaluate Galina Ustvolskaya’s music in two ways. Firstly, it does not appeal to me in the least: I would not listen to it by choice. Secondly, I recognise its huge importance and its massive contribution to Russian music. The exploration and assimilation of these works are at an early stage. I imagine that some listeners will be repulsed by Ustvolskaya’s musical language: others will want to join her on a long and intricate journey where ‘no one has gone before’ and may never go again.