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Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919-2006)
Complete Works for Violin and Piano
Sonata for violin and piano (1952) [19:47]
Duet for violin and piano (1964) [29:32]
Evgeny Sorkin (violin)
Natalia Andreeva (piano)
rec. 2018, Sydney Conservatorium of Music Recital Hall West, Australia
DIVINE ART DDA25182 [49:19]

I have not heard any music by Galina Ustvolskaya since I reviewed an album of piano music for MusicWeb International back in 2015. I explained there that her work did “not appeal to me in the least”. On the other hand, I understood the “huge importance and massive contribution to Russian music” discovered by many commentators. I have not changed that view.

The basic story of Ustvolskaya’s musical development is by now well-known. She studied with Dmitri Shostakovich but absorbed precious little from his musical style. Tending towards Modernist music rather than the Avant Garde, Ustvolskaya created a surprisingly small catalogue of music. There are also several pieces written in the style of ‘Soviet Realism’ that she subsequently disowned. Her ideal sound-world is grim, often dissonant and rarely easy on the ear.

Galina Ustvolskaya developed a nickname: ‘The Lady with the Hammer’. This was consequent on her often percussive and aggressive manner of creating musical texture. Yet, in this new CD of the violin and piano works, there is much that defies that sobriquet.

The present short programme (a mere 49 minutes) explores her ‘complete’ opus for violin and piano. The Sonata written in 1952 sounds relatively ‘conventional’ with identifiable musical phrases, motifs and regular discourse between soloists. It includes possible allusions to the musical style of Shostakovich and Paul Hindemith. There is even the making of a ‘neo-classical sonata’ here - at least for some of the work’s progress. The opening of the sonata calls for the rarely-used time signature of 1/4, which demands an intense playing style with no ‘weak beats’ and no time to relax. This really sums up the work’s progress – hard going. But the strange thing is that amongst this dark music there are the occasional flashes of light and even beauty. It is not all ‘hammer music’.

The Duet for violin and piano (1964) is a totally different kettle of fish. Gone are any lingering nods to other composers and ‘in’ is Ustvolskaya’s uncompromising style. Why did she not call this work her Second Violin Sonata? The liner notes do not fully answer this question but suggest that the ‘Duet’ is a ‘Drama’ – a story about two people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the composer used certain ‘key motifs’ as part of the work’s underlying ‘plot’. Alas their associations have not been identified. Perhaps one is the composer herself? These ‘gestures’ are worked out almost to infinity, rising to a climax and then disappearing into silence.

The music features considerable use of clusters and ‘extreme’ registers, motor rhythms, harmonics and a general flurry of aggressive gestures. Strangely, amongst all this angst is a short, almost pastoral moment which seems to openly defy the prevailing musical aesthetic.

The liner notes, in English only, are presented as the soloists’ personal discovery of, and reaction to, this music rather than a standard programme note. They are described by their author as “very emotional and very subjective – more like ‘performer’s notes” than an academic essay. It is effective and provides a useful pattern for others. There are brief biographies about the soloists.

The performances of these typically unsmiling works are exceptional. They reveal commitment and understanding from both soloists which transcends the bleakness of the music. The sound quality is excellent, as expected of the Divine Art label. I wonder if the Clarinet Trio (scored for clarinet, violin and piano) could have been included on this CD to make up the programme. It is featured on the competitor CD of ‘complete violin works’ released by EMI in 2014. (481 0883, Patricia Kopatchinskaja/Markus Hinterhäuser/Reto Bieri). I have not heard this CD.

Musically, I do not warm to Galina Ustvolskaya’s two works for violin and piano, although I prefer the Sonata to the Suite. I think that it is the obdurate austereness of this music that puts me off. I accept that it is interesting and unique in the world of music. It certainly justifies Ustvolskaya’s assertion “There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead”.
John France

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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