While Shostakovich's serene "Piano Quintet in G minor" is presented as the main attraction on this RCA disc, the lion's share of the program is devoted to the less celebrated and more challenging works of his student and friend, Galina Ustvolskaya. Yet as important as her music was to Shostakovich, and as critical as his teaching was to her development, the pieces recorded here do not clearly or convincingly illustrate the connections between them. Indeed, Ustvolskaya's "Octet" is strikingly unlike Shostakovich, for the language is more stringently atonal, and the layering techniques, brutal ostinati, and disjointed rhythms are more like Stravinsky or Varиse. "Composition No. 3" (Benedictus qui venit) and the "Symphony No. 5, Amen," are equally avant-garde in approach, and also show a strong preoccupation with religious matters, utterly foreign to anything in Shostakovich's secular output. So when the sweet, Classically oriented "Piano Quintet" follows Ustvolskaya's darkly dissonant works, one may be skeptical about the composers' relationship and the depth of their influences on each other. The performances by pianist Kathryn Stott, reciter Sergei Leiferkus, and the London Musici, conducted by Mark Stephenson, are all polished and professional, and RCA's sound is fine. But the point of the album is murky and listeners may well be puzzled by what they hear.
- Blair Sanderson
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The lives of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Galina Ustvolskaya (b. 1919) form a pair of diametric opposites, and at the same time, share a most curious communion. Both composers were born in Leningrad and received their diplomas from the Leningrad Conservatory, in 1924 and 1947, respectively. While Shostakovich reaped the glories and agonies of a public career in Soviet music, Ustvolskaya pursued an independent, almost isolated route to artistic fulfilment. Reluctantly regarded by her colleagues, her work has only recently received recognition in the West. What is emerging is a body of composition that is at once conspicuous for its intensity and determination.
It is surprising that Ustvolskaya's music has not already drawn more attention, if only for the testimonials it received from an enormously impressed Shostakovich. For a composer who rarely offered endorsements, his statements about his former student are noteworthy: "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." Even more remarkable is Shostakovich's written statement to her, "It is not you who are influenced by me; rather it is I who am influenced by you", a remark that should have already fuel- led much musicological speculation.
Shostakovich's admiration is further documented in his borrowing of an ori- ginal theme from Ustvolskaya's Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1949). The theme appears prominently in the first movement of his Fifth Quartet (1952) and again at the end of his life in the Night movement of the Michelangelo Suite (1974). As musical homage and, possibly, private communication, the borrowings have led a number of commentators to speculate on the nature of the artistic as well as spiritual relationship of the composers.
The younger composer's style acquired a secure foundation from her studies with Shostakovich, whose hallmarks of development-through-repetition, accentuated ostinati and unyielding severity became a seminal part of her musical thinking. Unlike her teachei's broadly narrative approach, her repetitive treatment of material tends to be intensely obsessive and directed toward a narrowly grim expressive range. Its austere departure from conventional form and content places it well outside the orbit of mainstream Soviet music. To some, it may recall certain solitary figures in European music, in spirit if not in style, such as Giacinto Scelsi, Miloslav Kabelac, and Allan Pettersson. Others may hear affinities with the Minimalists. The composer herself insists on her complete independence from any school or influence of composition.
Ustvolskaya has written some of the most disturbing and uncompromising music of our time. In its condensed brevity, it seems to alert the senses to the dark imponderables of being, and in its pious determination, appears to confront the angst of uncertainty with alarming directness. The listener, given such an esoteric muse, will be the ultimate judge.
The early OCTET (1949/50) is scored for an ensemble that reflects the composer's predilection for small, unusual combinations of instruments, its motivic ideas, grey and characrerless apparently by choice, tend to lock into rigid rhyth-mic patterns and are supported by impassively static harmonies. These inert features, set against the forward tension of pulsed repetition and varying degrees of dissonance, suspend the music in intense, hypnotic states of searching.
Another level of tension is achieved through frequently shifting metric patterns; and, in fact, a different time signature appears in almost every measure.
The metric fluctuations are most compelling in the second movement, where anguished tritones raise the demonic frenzy to a fever pitch. A slow movement, recalling the initial unctuous fervour, is followed by a movement of stirring rhythmic profile. The final movement comprises an epilogue of climactic agitation in which a battery of seven apocalyptic strokes, almost suggesting a firing squad, brings the work to a startling conclusion.
In the brief COMPOSITION NO. 3 (1974/5), the peculiar timbral combination of flutes, bassoons and piano is used to deliver an evocation of seething, otherworldly mystery. It is one of the composer's works written without barlines, allowing complete and unconstrained rhythmic flexibility. Out of a background of blurry semitonal inflections, a stepwise theme emerges and is set adrift in a meterless procession of thickly dissonant quarter notes. The piano's tone-clusters add additional textural and rhythmic emphasis. Rather than progressing to a state of clarification, the theme rocks and sways toward increasing states of urgency and inaccessibility interspersed with moments of repose. The final bars return the music, Sphinx-like, to its shadowy source. The work's subtitle, BENEDICTUS QUI VENIT indicates a connection with the Roman Catholic mass; the music itself, though, may suggest emotional and metaphysical parallels with Charles Ives' Unanswered Question.
THE SYMPHONY NO. 5, (AMEN), (1989/90) is a brooding setting of the Lord's Prayer which again demonstrates the composer's gift for novelty and intensified drama. One may hear the Lord's Prayer as an ironic choice of text, as its treatment throughout the work seems to convey the exasperated torment and tension of prayers left unanswered. As in the other works, the writing is sparse and obsessive, in this case characterised by short motifs alternating with one another in a simple, sequential fashion. In the score, the composer not only specifies the relative location of each performer on stage, but provides instructions of a somewhat ritualistic nature. The narrator, for example, is to be dressed in black shirt and trousers and is to recite with "inner emotion"; the violinist, performing the same descending phrase throughout, is to play like a "voice from under the ground". The imploring, worldweary ambience gives way to culminating moments of intensity amid the indifferent, ever-present rappings of the wooden box. In the end, the music again withdraws into the cryptically unconsoled cosmos that is singularly Ustvolskaya's.
Shostakovich's 1940 PIANO QUINTET soothingly rounds out the programme with its gentle power and graceful charm. The composer exercises surprising restraint by avoiding the conflicts and conflagrations usually associated with his style; instead, he embraces classical decorum with uncommonly charismatic lyricism. The ingenious adaptation of the Prelude and Fugue form establishes a dignified tone as well as a foundation of cohesive motivic logic that permeates all five movements. While the outer movements provide ceremonious material of a lighter tone, the slower movemets surrounding the scherzo form the expressive nucleus of the work. The tender fugue subject builds toward moments of stirringly expressive meditation, while the moderate's reverent theme and strolling bassline lead to a central passage of radiant nobility. In each case, the lyricism is beautifully articulated with a deep sense of concentration. The Scherzo's merriment defers to the work's reserved comportment which is otherwise gleefully twittered by the violin's infectious gypsy tune, The final coda, delicate and witty, must rank as one of Shostakovich's most memorable.
- Louis Blois