USTVOLSKAYA: Piano Concerto.  Symphony No. 1.
Oleg Malov (piano), Boris Pinkhasovitch & Pavel Semagin (trebles), Ural Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Liss, cond.

MEGADISC  MDC 7856 (F) (DDD)  TT: 38:38

"Difficult" doesn't begin to describe the personality of Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919 - ), one of the oddest ducks in the musical pond. She makes Beethoven seem positively genial. She gives very few interviews (none of late) and always with a bad grace. As a Soviet composer, she turned out the usual official drivel, but she also composed her own stuff, essentially for the desk drawer or for some unspecified time in the future when Soviet aesthetics were no more. Shostakovich, whose pupil she was, admired both her music and her person. At one point, he wanted to marry her. Ustvolskaya seems to have reacted with extreme revulsion. She has gone to the point not only of disclaiming any musical influence from Shostakovich, but of bad-mouthing Shostakovich as both composer and human being just about every opportunity she gets, relegating her former teacher to the status of trivial footnote to western music. If venom and childishly bad manners were the unmistakable signs of genius, then Ustvolskaya counts as one of the greatest.

In actuality, she probably is a genius as well as, personally, a bit of a hypocrite. Her serious work falls into two categories: an early period, in which (despite the vehemence of her protests) Shostakovich looms large as an unmistakable influence; a period, beginning in the early Fifties, in which she finds her own voice. She doesn't write much, and she doesn't write long. She believes very strongly -- perhaps too strongly -- in inspiration. Very few composers are inspired all the time and indeed do much by forcing themselves to put dots on a blank staff. To a composer who gushed that he had written his oratorio "on his knees," Vaughan Williams replied, "I wrote Sancta Civitas on my bum." Sometimes wonderful possibilities open up simply by sticking at it. Ustvolskaya's music burns with the intensity of a laser, perhaps one more reason for her brief output. One "breathes" at very few places.

The piano concerto (1946), written before she nominally apprenticed with Shostakovich, gives the lie to her insistence that the older composer served her merely as a negative example. The liner notes point out resemblances in the piano writing to Shostakovich's first piano concerto. The sound world, however, is that of the sixth symphony -- severe and concentrated -- or perhaps the second piano trio. It leads Shostakovich to his violin concerti and to his tenth and thirteenth symphonies, as well as to the late quartets and to the viola sonata. Ustvolskaya does leave the Shostakovian specifics behind, but she discovers a similar emotional place -- dour, raw, and stripped of ornament. Ustvolskaya views her art as religious at its core, but it's a hard religion, full of anger, pain, and suffering. Emma Goldman once remarked, "I don't want to be part of your revolution if I can't dance." Bach gives us the Italian Concerto as well as the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden, Beethoven the fifth and the sixth symphonies. Both composers try to speak to our entire experience. Ustvolskaya's art succeeds, but within much narrower limits. The music seems to turn in on itself, rather than to open out.

One internet discussion list ran a very long thread on Ustvolskaya (you can search the archives at <>) in which someone asserted that Ustvolskaya deliberately courts ugliness as part of her aesthetic. While I certainly find it stark, I can't call the music particularly ugly -- any uglier than, say, Shostakovich. It is, however, dissonant, as is much modern stuff. The discussion thread itself fascinates for all the "hot buttons" it manages to push about 20th-century music.

The first symphony really comes closer to a song cycle with orchestra. Ustvolskaya divides it into three parts: a purely instrumental prelude and postlude (both quite short), and a central section of eight settings of poems by Italian Communist Gianni Rodari in Russian translation. The poems all speak to the suffering of the poor and are sung by boy trebles. Their wood-stop timbre emphasizes the innocence of the sufferers. The longest of these songs goes slightly over two minutes and most run around a minute and a half or less. The composer tends to emphasize the winds and the high violins. We normally hear a very "glassy" sound. Many have found foreshadowings of the so-called Holy Minimalists, like Górecki and Prt. One hears the repetitive worrying of small cells in the symphony, but the sheer anger and nervous energy in the music puts it, in my opinion, beyond the "suspension of time" effect aimed at by many of the composers so labeled. The underlying pace of the music also seems quicker. The music changes much more readily than in Tavener, for example. This is born out by the final part, in which the time-sense lies much closer to pre- than to post-World War II.

Both performances are quite good. The symphony, in particular, can't be easy to perform. Contrasts are usually subtle and far between, but Liss makes the most of them. The piano concerto, the more "familiar" piece, receives a committed performance from both the orchestra and the soloist, Oleg Malov. Incidentally, Ustvolskaya is apparently on the outs with him (he continues to champion her music) and snipes at him when she takes the notion. No one said a great composer had to be friendly or even courteous, and it may well be that Ustvolskaya's reclusiveness may simply suit her better than social situations, which seem to drive her to mild pathology. Nevertheless, however much the personality turns me off, the music definitely turns me on.

The sound is clear, perhaps a little bright. Balances between soloists and orchestra are good.