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Ustvolskaya Symphonies

Galina Ustvolskaya Symphonies Nos. 2,3,4 & 5.
MEGADISC MDC 7854 [TT: 50 mins] (Purchase from patrick@megadisc.be)

In the mid '90s I encountered Galina Ustvolskaya's uncompromising music and went into a degree of shock. With its stark tone and unconsoling religious basis, reflecting the horrors and privations of her life under Stalin, it made a profound impression. She lives reclusively and has never travelled to celebrate her late life fame.

Subsequently I have written about Ustvolskaya's music extensively, in particular a comparative survey of her piano music on CD, studying it at the keyboard (a lot of it is not too hard) as well as by listening. The piano is central to Ustvolskaya's compositions and is played by Igor Malov in all but one of the four works collected here. There is more variety in her six piano sonatas than in these so-called symphonies.

Each 'symphony' is in a short single movement, proceeded at an unvarying steady tempo, often with relentless percussive thuds. The instrumentation is restricted, and the small groups of instruments are not treated idiomatically. There is nothing ingratiating about Ustvolskaya and she will never be a box office draw. Each of these works is a ritual, with a voice declaiming fragments of text, biblical or short groups of holy invocations, 'murmured complaint or insistent supplication, as opposed to the cosmic indifference of the music' (Franz Lemaire).

So, this is not music for entertainment, but it is music that demands to be known and absorbed, even if you feel, as I do, unable to take these separate works more than one at a time, and not too often.

These are authentic performances and the recording and documentation are entirely satisfactory. You may think that 50 mins is short measure - but played straight through it will drain you!

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf