GALINA USTVOLSKAYA: Complete Piano Music = Piano Sonatas 1–6; 12 Preludes – Ivan Sokolov, p. – Piano Classics (2 CDs)

by | Sep 21, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

GALINA USTVOLSKAYA: Complete Piano Music = Piano Sonatas 1–6; 12 Preludes – Ivan Sokolov, p. – Piano Classics PCL0050 (2 CDs), 68:00, 18:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

Here is an enigmatic musical figure: Galina Ustvolskaya (1919–2006), student of Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatoire and also love interest of the older composer, wrote music pretty much unlike any I know. And that includes Shostakovich: Ustvolskaya’s earliest music, including the First Piano Sonata (1947), features some Shostakovich-like gestures, but she quickly developed her own unique musical voice, one that changed very little through the years.

Shostakovich is reported to have said of Ustvolskaya, “You are a phenomenon, while I’m but a talent. . . .” Apparently, this was not merely Love speaking because Shostakovich went so far as to quote Ustvolskaya in at least two of his works, the Fifth String Quartet and the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo and often sought her advice. He remained convinced that the music of his former student would gain “world recognition.” However, recognition in her own country was slow to come since her music was so uncompromisingly individual and strayed so far from the ideals of Soviet officialdom. From what I can read—and the record seems slightly self-contradictory—few of her works were performed in public until the eventual thaw in Soviet relations with the West (Perestroika). But it’s not clear that she actively suppressed them since Shostakovich championed her music before the Union of Soviet Composers. Still, it’s true that very little of her music got a hearing before the 1960s, including the earlier sonatas recorded here. For example, the relatively unoffending (at least to contemporary ears) First Sonata had to wait till the ‘70s to be heard in public.

So what are the hallmarks of this music? I can’t really describe them better than Levon Hakobian does in his notes to the current recording: “Its [the music’s] most conspicuous features include measured pace of even rhythmical units, lean textures, sharp dynamic contrasts. . . . The music’s expressive power is intensified due to such factors as the sharpness of dissonant chords (. . .the so-called tone clusters), the quasi-oratorical pathos of instrumental articulations, the hypnotizing reiterations of concise simple motifs.” As I noted above, the relatively pacific First Sonata is the only one that recalls Shostakovich even vaguely. Like all these works, it doesn’t have the lineaments of a Classical sonata; this one sounds like several of Shostakovich’s angrier piano preludes strung together. But already the characteristics dealing with rhythm and texture are in place. Harmonies are spare, and each individual movement is monolithic in terms of rhythmic impetus: if it starts slow, it remains slow, which holds true for fast as well.

By the Third Sonata (1953) the other features mentioned cited by Hakobian come into play. Ustvolskaya is apparently not afraid to employ as much dissonance as she wants, and those thick, “clustery” chords become ever more evident, while the emotional tenor of the work reflects the general gloom that pervades the late works of Shostakovich—though while Shostakovich is monumentally gloomy, Ustvolskaya expresses her sense of outrage and pity in minimalist packages. (Composer Viktor Suslin, writing of the 1949 Sonata No. 2, hints that it reflects “infinite despair and passionate protest” over the anti-formalist attack of the previous year that embarrassed (and terrified) Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian, among other Soviet composers.

All these cited tendencies of Ustvolskaya’s music become more emphatic in her later years so that by the time of the Fifth and the tiny (seven and half minutes) Sixth Sonata, we have those sharp dynamic contrasts that Hakobian mentions in spades. Parts of both sonatas absolutely thunder while others barely whisper. (By the way, if you sample Ustvolskaya’s orchestral and chamber music, you’ll find that all these tendencies are mirrored there as well, plus the exploration of strange instrumental combos: viz., her Octet for four violins, two oboes, piano and timpani!)

The Twelve Preludes, which take up all of eighteen minute’s time, are an addendum that finds Ustvolskaya in a somewhat more relaxed mood, at least some of the time. But they still encapsulate, in small space, all the attributes of her style mentioned above. Don’t expect to find Shostakovich’s influence in this genre that he favored.

These performances by Russian composer-pianist Ivan Sokolov display the sympathy of one Russian modernist for another. He seems to understand firsthand the anguished worldview behind these works and, as far as I can tell without reference to the score, conveys them faithfully in all their wild, angry insistence. The recording, made in the studios of Moscow Radio House, is suitably hard-edged and intense—maybe a tad too much so. Listening to the sonatas one after another, right through the whole series, is an emotionally and aurally draining experience. Take a work or two at a sitting to experience Ustvolskaya’s’ unique musical language without tears (or with comparatively few).

—Lee Passarella

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