Galina Ustvolskaya (ECM New Series 2329)

2329 X

Galina Ustvolskaya

Patricia Kopatchinskaja violin
Markus Hinterhäuser piano
Reto Bieri clarinet
Recorded March 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) may not be a household name, but the Russian composer’s work speaks with a truth that is rare in modern music. As the favorite student of her famous teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, she was destined for greatness. However, personal politics seem to have gotten in the way of her ascent to prominence. Shostakovich was quite taken with Ustvolskaya, twice proposing marriage. Her lack of reciprocation seems to have embittered him, and as a result her work was scarcely published or performed. According to her book, Shostakovich in Dialogue, however, author Judith Kuhn cautions against buying into Ustvolskaya’s personal mythology, as her claims of creative independence (“There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, livind or dead”) might have been just as reactionary, and allusions to Shostakovich inevitably creep up in her work.

But life and art do not imitate one another in her music, which like the cover photograph of this ECM New Series album dedicated to it speaks to the broken pieces as much as those intact, for they also have songs to sing. Because it was she who said, “All who truly love my music should refrain from theoretical analysis of it” (though even this might have been a defensive statement), we do better to approach it not as an excuse for analytical thinking, but as a spiritual experience that demands undivided regard in return for its outpouring.

The beating heart of all three works featured here is Moldovan-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose rendering of the Sonata for violin and piano (1952) alongside Markus Hinterhäuser is alone worth the acquaintance. The violin begins on a teetering, pianistic bridge in which just enough slats remain to grant full passage. On the other side, Kopatchinskaja must hold the music’s fabric together, frayed as it is. This requires an unusually pristine tone, and this she possesses, along with a variety of extended configurations. She can darken or brighten, be rough or smooth, and moves through the body of this music like creation itself. Notes devoid of vibrato stand out for their clarity and help temper the piano’s inclinations to dance. What emerges from all of this is an internal clock, marking not time but space. Its pulse is not mechanical, but shifts with every blush of mood. Kopatchinskaja takes up that pulse at the end as she raps the body of her instrument with a knuckle.


The 1949 Trio adds clarinetist Reto Bieri to the duo for a tripartite work of artful design. Bieri’s own purity of tone enhances Kopatchinskaja’s, and vice versa, while Hinterhäuser stretches every filament into even consistency. The violin writing is more insistent and razor-like this time around, cutting the obvious relationships within the trio in favor of the implied. The second movement is a lullaby in shadow, walking a tightrope into a warped deconstruction of a Bach-like motif in the third. Here the jagged and the linear become a third, metaphysical category: a blueprint of a blueprint, in which the piano barely hangs on to life.

In his cultural history of St. Petersburg, Solomon Volkov writes, “Ustvolskaya’s chamber works are as monumental as a symphony, and her symphonies are as translucent as chamber music,” though I find it hard to believe that many would hold such an opinion had the composer not put it forth herself. We may see this dynamic operative in the 1952 Sonata, but the Duet for violin and piano, written in 1964, is an intimate cartography of resistance. The distinction between Sonata and Duet more rightly speaks to the composer’s defiance of the chamber music category. The violin’s unassuming introduction turns to flint as flashes ring out. Dissonant, romping scales in the piano, combined with the violin’s half-step faints and distant alarm calls, prime us for the expectorations to come. Yet within each crashing wave curls an invisible grammar, to which pizzicato periods dot arco exclamations. And in a ghostly finish, the violin scrims the line between Heaven and Hell, blending until there is no difference between the two.

And so, rather than simply compare these chamber works to symphonies, it would be more accurate to emphasize their repurposing of scale. It’s not that Ustvolskaya’s sound-world is so big as to engulf us, but that we shrink to such a size that what was once microscopic now seems cosmic. Biographical apocrypha aside, her work is vital for its staunchness of both vision and blindness to the listener. This is not to say we are ignored, but neither are we patronized. We must reckon the music as it is.

(To hear samples of Galina Ulstvolskaya, click here.)

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