Galina Ustvolskaya: Dies Irae; Sonata No. 6; Grand Duet

Marino Formenti / Rohan de Saram / Stefano Scodanibbio / Fabrizio Ottaviucci

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Galina Ustvolskaya: Dies Irae; Sonata No. 6; Grand Duet Review

by James Manheim

Galina Ustvolskaya, a student of Shostakovich, wrote music of such strangeness that it for the most part never even rose to the level where it could be repressed by the Soviet authorities. Shostakovich praised her music highly, but she once said that there "is no link between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead." It was a strong but justifiable statement. If you had to draw a comparison, you might say that Ustvolskaya's music has a bit of the feeling of that of Carl Ruggles, with competing masses of sound replacing the dissonant counterpoint and Russian spirituality replacing the American veneration of nature. Only 25 compositions by Ustvolskaya, who went for years without writing anything at all, have survived. This disc from the offbeat German label Wergo offers a good sampling; the three works date from 1959 to 1988 but resemble each other stylistically more than they differ. The Composition No. 2 "Dies Irae," for the unlikely combination of eight double basses, wooden cube, and piano, exemplifies Ustvolskaya's style. The piano lies at the center of this work (and the other two as well), with the composer's trademark repeated pounding of the piano keys. Ustvolskaya's piano writing tends to alternate between single melodic lines and sforzando attacks across the keybaord; there are few ordinary chords. In the Composition No. 2 she insinuates the double bass ensemble and the cube percussion slowly into the piano texture, with gradual textual shifts that would suggest a proto-minimalism if it were not so violent. The other two works manipulate the basic contrast principle in different ways, and the five-movement Grand Duet for cello and piano has calmer sections, but the overall mood is intense, monumental, struggling. Very much, as James Thurber might say, like nothing you have ever heard before, and the music benefits here from fine performances by a group of Italian musicians and top-notch engineering.

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