"A Grand Russian Original Steps Out Of The Mist"
by Alex Ross
New York Times, May 28, 1995
And who, pray tell, is Ustvolskaya? A public that has embraced Prokofiev and Shostakovich, acknowledged Alfred Schnittke, taken note of Sofia Gubaidulina and eyed Giya Kancheli might well grow weary at the prospect of greeting yet another figure in the endless procession of Russian and former-Soviet composers. All the same, here she is. The collected works of Galina Ustvolskaya, utterly unknown a decade ago, have suddenly burst into view: performances have dotted several continents, nearly a dozen recordings have seeped into the record stores. An imposing figure in 20th-century musical history has stepped out of the mist.
Actually, there is not much to tell, at least by way of biography. She lives alone in St. Petersburg and declines all requests for photographs or interviews. In the one photograph supplied by her publisher, she bears a confusing resemblance to Gubaidulina. Scant material appears under her name in the standard reference works: born 1919; studied with Shostakovich; wrote works with titles like "Dawn over the Fatherland" and "Young Pioneers" during the Stalinist years. In 1958 her formidable Violin Sonata perplexed a delegation of American composers. Roy Harris called it "kind of ugly."
Elizabeth Wilson's "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered," a magnificent documentary study published earlier this year by Princeton University Press, fills in a bit more detail. It seems that Ustvolskaya had a very close relationship with Shostakovich, perhaps even a romantic one; and, more relevantly, Shostakovich regarded her not merely as the most promising of his students but as a major voice in her own right. In a ringing public endorsement, he once said, "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance." In a private letter, he went further: "It is not you who are influenced by me; rather it is I who am influenced by you." And he paid her the ultimate compliment of quoting her music in several of his works.
Ustvolskaya's earliest extant pieces--two piano sonatas and a Clarinet Trio from 1949--certainly show the influence of Shostakovich, but they also establish a formidable independent voice. Slow-moving, semi-tonal, sparsely expressive lines in the trio echo the chamber style Shostakovich developed in the early quartets and Second Piano Trio. But instead of summoning up rhythmic momentum and striding toward Shostakovichian climaxes, this music closes in obsessively upon itself. The earliest piano sonatas are more of a direct shock: the principal precursor here is not Shostakovich at all but Erik Satie, and in particular the static, starkly dissonant pieces Satie wrote under the influence of Rosicrucian mysticism. Otherwise, Ustvolskaya's harsh, blunt, engimatic textures sound like nothing else in musical history.
One of the century's grand originals, Ustvolskaya has struck deeper and deeper into her own private landscape. In her Violin Sonata of 1952, she established her peculiar declamatory style in definitive form. The later piano sonatas are ablaze with precisely fashioned cluster chords and violent dynamic contrasts. She does not hesitate to fill her scores with triple and quadruple fortissimos: she has colonized the higher end of the dynamic spectrum much as Morton Feldman took possession of the lower. After a silence of several years, she returned in the 1970's and 80's with three Compositions and five Symphonies, fiercely concise works that employ ever more bizarre and brutal instrumental combinations--flute, tuba and piano; or eight double basses, piano, and "wooden cube"; or trumpet, tam-tam, piano and contralto.
Brutality has become the hallmark of her style. One critic called her "the lady with the hammer." But her extremities of dissonance and timbre are always set against a bracing simplicity of texture and rhythm. She is at the furthest possible remove from the Serialists, practicing complexity for complexity's stake. Much of her work is more or less tonal, or at least modal: long, regular strings of notes in formations resembling plainchant, pinned on percussive patterns. There are also some startling stretches of untroubled lyrical repose. Most important, every passage is given a clear and vivid place in a linear narrative. Sounds become hard objects in space. As Feldman approximated certain aspects of abstract painting, Ustvolskaya has made music into sculpture.
With the exception of the earlier symphonies, virtually the entire corpus of Ustvolskaya's published work has shown up on recordings in the last two years. The adventurous Swiss label Hat Art, which had previously done great things for Feldman, led the way with a superb rendering of the Clarinet Trio, Fifth Sonata and Violin Duet, with the commanding Dutch avant-gardist Reinbert de Leeuw at the piano (6115; CD). De Leeuw, a magically glacial interpreter of Satie, approaches Ustvolskaya with similar patience and purity of tone. The same performer is due to release a disk of the three Compositions in Philips; Hat Art's series has meanwhile continued with Rohan de Saram's account of the faintly Shostakovichian Grand Duet and Marianne Schroeder's version of the needlesome Twelve Preludes (6130; CD).
A new Belgian label called Megadisc has given Hat Art competition with a set of four Ustvolskaya disks, encompassing most of her mature works (MDC 7863, 7865, 7867, 7876; CD's). These performances by the pianist Oleg Malov and the St. Petersurg Soloists are not as polished as Hat Art's, and the sound is not nearly as lustrous, but there is an engaging briskness and even playfulness in these musicians' approach. Until a new disk arrives from Hat Art, the dryly intense Malov has the monopoly on the complete cycle of piano sonatas, which he learned under the composer's supervision in St. Petersburg.
And there's more: the Octet has also been given a fine performance by members of London Musici on Conifer Classics, considerably sweeter in tone than Malov's. This disk also brings the visceral drama of the Fifth Symphony (with recitations by the baritone Sergei Leiferkus) and Shostakovich's thoroughly ingratiating Piano Quintet (75605 51194 2; CD). Finally, the young cellist Maya Beiser has logically paired works by the two great Russian women: Ustvolskaya's Grand Duet and Gubaidulina Ten Preludes and "In Croce." Beiser displays admirable concentration and strength of tone (Koch International 3-7258-2 H1; CD).
Ustvolskaya is to be approached with caution. She may inspire admiration, or she may inspire frustration, even revulsion. Woe to the pleasure-seeking listener who spots certain religiose titles--"Dona Nobis Pacem," "Amen," "Dies Irae"--and expects a Mystic Minimalist after the fashion of Henryk Gorecki or Arvo Pärt. This is religiosity with hard edges, penance for esoteric sin. Forms emerge from pitch blackness only when the eyes have become accustomed to the lack of light.