Volume two of the Galina Ustvolskaya retrospective by Hat Art continues to amaze by revealing the intensely personal, intimate world of a major composer. She is only now, very late in her life, becoming known not only to those of us in the West interested in original 20th century classical music, but also in her homeland of Russia. For years censored by the idiotic Soviet cultural police, yet celebrated and paid homage to by her teacher Dmitri Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya pursued a solitary, deeply spiritual creative path that invited conflict with her innermost self; it is a conflict that has yet, according to the composer herself, to be resolved. This second volume features the great pianist Marianne Schroeder, who was introduced to us via her truly masterful performances of Morton Feldman's piano works. The opening salvo here features Schroeder playing "Twelve Preludes (For Piano)" from 1953. Schroeder is, because of her work on the Feldman recordings, used to tension and restraint. But the tension in Ustvolskaya's work differs from the emotional or musical tension put forth by any other composer, living or dead. Every note, no matter how softly played, has so much weight placed upon it, so much emphasis that makes it stand out from stillness -- though ultimately it is stillness amplified -- as to bear down into the performer's own experience, the listener's own world of conflict and perhaps even grief. There are no comparisons for Ustvolskaya's works. She predates her contemporaries Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke by a good almost 20 years. These preludes come from an obsession, an inner fire that taxes the instrument's limits. Here, where eights and 12s play counterpoint to one another and harmonic intervals know no common length, there is only the instinct of the composer to trust, only her tectonics to hold on to as the world is unmade and recreated within our mind's eye. From the quiet of dawn to the harsh resistance to darkness and the force of voicing one's own truth, Schroeder holds her own in this torrent of passion and pain, embracing the smaller, quieter passages as one would the final moments of life. That's how utterly important this music is: everything counts and nothing is wasted. In the fifth movement "Grand Duet (For Violincello and Piano)" from 1959, Ustvolskaya's only trademark commences the work, a set of triplets in the high register contrasted against large minor chords from the bottom state a theme that is quickly met and expanded upon by De Saram. This first movement is strident, slashing its way through the first three minutes, pointedly creating a harmonic tension that can only be answered by an investigation of dynamic interval and melodic invention, which takes place in movement two. Schroeder's piano invents new heights and is underscored by the plaintive nature of De Saram's instrument. By the time we reach the fifth and final movement, which is also the longest, Ustvolskaya's has created within the confines of this duet a grand hymn to grief, loss, and reparation, where hope is tenuous and fleeting. The musical language she constructs in her final piece here, a later work called "Composition No. 1: Dona Nobis Pacem" from 1971, is anything but peaceful. Here, piccolo and tuba flit and bleat around each other attempting to speak from some sanctum unperturbed by or penetrated by human speech. It is only Schroeder's piano attempting to build a bridge of translation from that keeps the work together. And it may be that dissolution is really its intent, that peace is only possible when total surrender, complete willingness to fall apart is present. In the third and final movement, Ustvolskaya does bring a kind of truce if not resolution to the work; indeed it feels as if only the possibility for resolution is being breached with its muted piccolo lines and fragmentary Violincello measures. The only constant seems to be the piano, an arrhythmic heartbeat to offer proof that there is life after conflict, and complete surrender is survival in the aftermath of total loss. In fact, this last work is devastating emotionally. It offers only the solace of silence, with the trace of hope waiting, waiting, waiting, to be called upon sincerely. Volume two of Ustvolskaya's retrospective is indeed the stronger of the two, if only because it reveals how completely developed her vision was from the very beginning. And, in Schroeder, she has a pianist who can hear with her own heart this broken language of heartbreak the composer has wrought.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek