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Thread: Galina Ustvolskaya

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    Senior Member Dirge's Avatar
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    Default Galina Ustvolskaya

    Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919–2006)

    Some time ago, I made my way through Galina Ustvolskaya’s opus, all 21 acknowledged works of it. Most of her music is very austere, cellular/block-y, short on conventional development and long on repetition, relying on dynamic extremes, tension, density (lots of Henry Cowell-like clusters), sonorities, and a certain hypnotic charm to put it across. In lieu of conventional development, a sort of organic cellular recycling/re-combining program seems to be in place, with Ustvolskaya using cells (often rhythmic motives) like musical Legos: combining cells to build some music, obsessively playing with the music until the novelty wears off, then pulling the music apart and using the same cells to build some other music, etc. Then again, many works (such as Piano Sonatas Nos. 5 & 6) don’t seem to have any development at all, conventional or unconventional. How she’s able to generate the amount of atmosphere and listener interest that she does with so little material is beyond me, but that’s more or less the intrigue of her music.

    What follows is a list of my favorite Ustvolskaya works, the ones that have withstood repeated listening (if only just barely in some cases), along with my listening notes:

    :: Trio for violin, clarinet & piano (1949) • Beths, De Boer & De Leeuw [hat ART; 17']
    This has the feel of a deconstructed and stripped-down cross between Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 and Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, with the violin-dominated parts sounding something like the former and the clarinet-dominated parts sounding something like the latter. It’s a transitional work, dispensing with the relatively Romantic feel of her earlier Piano Concerto and First Symphony but not yet achieving the style she would become famous/infamous for, though there are hints of it—indeed, the strange minute-long piano solo that ends the work sounds like an omen of what’s to come. This is Ustvolskaya for those who don’t like Ustvolskaya (and for those who do). (I’d say that the Trio is her most “accessible” work, but that term carries with it too much condescending baggage.) The hat ART trio give it a powerful, compelling performance.

    :: Octet for 2 oboes, 4 violins, timpani & piano (1950) • Stephenson/London Musici [Conifer/RCA; 15']
    In the multifarious five-movement Octet, Ustvolskaya takes a big step toward the style of her later works. A good part of the Octet sounds like minimalist Stravinsky in primitive mode, with an atmosphere that resembles the stripped-down essence of Les Noces; there’s also a Petrouchka-esque employment of the piano in many places. Other parts sound a bit like deconstructed John Adams, while still others, the opening of the second movement in particular, bring Schnittke’s Piano Quintet to mind. The way that Ustvolskaya sometimes isolates sounds and lets them resound and decay to an uncommon extent reminds me of Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Messe de la Pentecôte, as does her use of silence and abrupt halts. The final section, with its martial timpani brutally driving the procession to its abrupt end, has a Berlioz “March to the Scaffold” feel about it. She tends to use the two oboes as one and the four violins as one (in unison or in a clustered way), so the work often sounds as much like a quartet as it does an octet.

    :: Grand Duet for cello & piano (1959) • Rostropovich & Lubimov [EMI; 24']
    Ustvolskaya here places a timbrally stressed-out, pushed-to-the-limits cello in various difficult situations to see how it will react, then she allows it to contemplate the ordeal. The cello is in distressed voice throughout the first four movements, mostly making simple, bold, repetitious sawing noises, but it’s allowed to sing its lament in the long final movement. The piano busily echoes, reinforces, sets the atmosphere, or otherwise accompanies, but the cello seems somehow isolated from and independent of the piano; the piano tries to engage the cello and bring it out of its long, despairing final lament, but the cello ignores it as if it weren’t even there. Although Ustvolskaya is always trying to distance herself from Shostakovich, his influence is felt here and there throughout, at least superficially. Rostropovich plays with his usual commanding rhetorical eloquence, and Lubimov comes out of his shell to provide excellent, very pointed accompaniment.

    :: Duet for violin & piano (1964) • Beths & De Leeuw [hat ART; 24']
    The first section contains Ustvolskaya’s most brutal and harshly contrasted music, with the big bad piano trying to pulverize the hapless, stressed-out little violin, which sounds as if it’s strung with raw nerves rather than catgut. The second section is more of an inquisition, with the violin desperately trying to plead its case only to be shut down by short, bold retorts from the piano; the violin loses and goes into lament mode, occasionally taunted by the piano. The final section is quiet and resigned and relatively lyrical, almost nostalgic, sounding a bit like austere Satie. On the whole, this is about as viscerally raw, brutal, and wrenching as music gets. Beths and De Leeuw are outstanding in this staggering performance, and there helped by the vivid and immediate recorded sound—although the sound does distort a bit during some of the piano’s fffff passages.

    :: Piano Sonata No. 5 (1986) • Malov [Megadisc; 15']
    This sonata has ten contrasting movements that might be described as ten studies in D flat—not the scale, the note … the one just above middle C. All ten movements strongly gravitate around it, and some just plain pound it out repeatedly. In the fifth movement, which comprises D flat and the cluster of four white keys just below it (F to B), Ustvolskaya’s directs the pianist to hit the cluster with the knuckles so that the bones audibly smack upon the keys—bony fingered pianists have a real advantage here. The work is surprisingly varied given its premise, with some of the movements vaguely reminding me of certain bagatelles from Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles, Op. 6, an intentionally avant-garde work from 1908. Malov brings more variety and a better sense of timing to this work than other pianists I’ve heard, allowing him to generate more tension and dramatic anticipation. De Leeuw [hat ART] isn’t far behind, and he brings a bit more sheer force, but he’s a degree too slow and a degree less tense and dramatic. Schroeder [hat ART] brings more brute force than either, but her playing is a bit less varied; still, I rather like it.

    :: Piano Sonata No. 6 (1988) • Malov [Megadisc; 7']
    This is the most obsessively single-minded, repetitive, and rhetorically challenged of Ustvolskaya’s works (and perhaps her most notorious). I tend to listen to it more to hear how the pianist deals with it than for the music itself. I like Malov here for the same reasons that I like him in Sonata No. 5. For a more brutal and menacing alternative, I turn to Schroeder [hat ART]. Hinterhäuser [col legno] and Denyer [Conifer] have their fans, but I find the former too loose and woolly and the later too plain and monolithic.

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    That's quite a review. Thank you. I tend to confuse her with Sofia Gubidulena

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    Senior Member ahammel's Avatar
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    She's "the lady with the hammer", right?

    Thanks for the write-up, I've been meaning to explore her work.

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    I´m mostly listening to her early Piano Concerto, not more "complicated" than say Shosty´s.
    Last edited by joen_cph; Dec-25-2014 at 13:32.

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    Senior Member MrMeatScience's Avatar
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    I'm surprised that there hasn't been more activity here!

    Ustvolskaya has historically been a very difficult composer for me. Since I first became aware of her a few years back, I have on several occasions tried to sit down and immerse myself in her music, never with any real success. I knew that what I was hearing was good, but it was just impenetrable, and frustrating (even some of the comparatively accessible pieces like the 1949 Clarinet Trio). Today I tried again after a few months of other listening and it's suddenly clicked! The gateway pieces for me were the 12 Preludes for piano and the Octet. Do other members here have favorite recordings of any of Ustvolskaya's music? It seems to me like she's not very well-represented on record.

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