Markus Hinterhäuser / Galina Ustvolskaya

Galina Ustvolskaya: Piano Sonatas

(CD - Col Legno #20019)

Review by

This 1998 collection of Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya piano sonatas is one of only two recordings. The other on Hat by Marianne Schroeder is perhaps more definitive, but Mr. Hinterhäuser's readings are very fine as well. Spanning 43 years (the last sonata here is dated 1988, but was actually composed -- according to the official edition -- in 1990), these six sonatas reveal the development of a composer who is at times at odds with her own ability to innovate -- tonally and modally -- and a spiritual pessimism that cannot but help be expressed in a spacious yet darkly painted world of drones, overtones, and harmonic densities. "Sonata No. 3" is Ustvolskaya's longest and most beautiful achievement. Long strands of quartertones are played seemingly incessantly, as if being chanted by a monk's choir. Three haunting melodies present themselves in the first four minutes, yet none of them resolve it or the others. They hang there, like prayers extended in supplication and as yet unanswered. This sonata is ever waiting upon the sweep of divine intervention yet continues dutifully, persistently in its sweetness as if not convinced it's already not too late. It engages silence at its end, as the last statement of mystery, without wonder or expectation, its part in the spiritual equation complete. "Sonata No. 4" is almost Satie-like in its use of scales and clustered chords. There are extended quotations in its second movement that come over as a ballet. In the third and fourth movements you can hear traces of her mentor Shostakovich, but also the pianissimo of Rachmaninov. As the fourth movement sets to resolve itself, dissonance and pedal work offer stand-alone phrases composed of polytones and intervals that dictate form, though it is so individual and strident that it feels like the crag of a mountain peak in its severity. Mr. Hinterhäuser is an effective pianist, his interpretations, while lacking the sheer physicality of Ms. Schroeder's, do offer another dimension to Ms. Ustvolskaya's compositions -- that of space. Hinterhäuser looks to the gaps, the rests between her intervals, for the subtleties in her austere lines and chords, for inspiration, and for revelation. And it works. Hinterhäuser concerned himself with the spiritual element that is clearly at the heart of Galina Ustvolskaya's work, and has moved through his use of her space to turn pessimism into a kind of frustrated longing, which, given her few statements over these last three decades, is an accurate appraisal of her aim. This is a worthy companion to the Hat recording of Ms. Schroeder's performance; the sound is warm yet very accurate, and the interpretation is unique yet reverent.

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