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Galina Ustvolskaya Obituary

Tim Macdonald and Peter Grahame Woolf
(The Guardian 13 January 2007)

- - Peter Grahame Woolf writes: My attention was first drawn to Galina Ustvolskaya in 1990 when I saw some simple-looking pages scattered on the Basle studio floor of the pianist Marianne Schroeder. She was excited by their originality and soon became the first to record the six piano sonatas.

Not until 1994 did I experience the overwhelming impact in performance of Ustvolskaya's music, at the British premiere of Symphony No 5, Amen (1989-90), given by London Musici at St John's, Smith Square. The stark tone and religious basis of this uncompromising vision, with its spare instrumentation (voice, oboe, trumpet, tuba, violin and percussion), made a profound impression, and I went into a degree of shock.

The fifth was the last of the works she called "symphony", though only the first three use orchestras rather than chamber groups. They are all cast in single movements, some quite short, proceeding at an unvarying, steady tempo, often with relentless percussive thuds. Each is a ritual, with a voice declaiming fragments of text, either biblical or in short groups of holy invocations - in the words of music writer Franz Lemaire, "murmured complaint or insistent supplication, as opposed to the cosmic indifference of the music".

Exploring Ustvolskaya's solo piano music at the keyboard and comparing the 11 CDs then available for International Piano Quarterly (November 1999) became an exhilarating, yet draining, experience. The piano is central in Ustvolskaya's oeuvre, and her writing for it instantly recognisable. She does not use barlines and combines polyphony with powerful rhythmic drive. Terraced dynamics juxtapose "ffffff" and "pppppp" in extreme keyboard registers.

She stands outside fashion, past or present. Hallmarks of her style are unswerving severity and seriousness, presented in a predominantly harsh, hard-edged sound spectrum, eschewing the tonal gradations and pedalling subtleties of the best-loved piano music. It is bleak and compelling, neither typically avant garde nor minimalist; cathartic but never comfortable.

In 1995, film director Josée Voormans persuaded this reclusive, frail but indomitable, camera-shy composer to go to Amsterdam to hear her music rehearsed and performed, and to give what may well be her only interview recorded on film. As A Cry in the Universe, it was shown last October at the festival Dancing on a Tightrope - Beyond Shostakovich at London's South Bank Centre.

There followed another VPRO Netherlands TV production, Odette Toeset's filming of a studio performance of Ustvolskaya's Symphony No 2 (True and Eternal Bliss) by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, directed from the piano by Reinbert de Leeuw. One of the best films of an orchestral performance ever made, it uses camera images to enhance the impact of the music to a quite extraordinary degree.

· Galina Ivanova Ustvolskaya, composer, born June 17 1919; died December 22 2006

Pictures: Galina Ustvolskaya with Reinbert de Leeuw in Amsterdam; Ustvolskaya as a young woman (from Wikipedia)