Of the suppressed Soviet composers now receiving attention through recordings, Galina Ustvolskaya is surely the starkest voice in the wilderness, the most relentlessly uncompromising prophet of nonconformity. Like Carl Ruggles in America and Giocento Sclesi in Italy, Ustvolskaya was reclusive and very private. Born in 1919, to my knowledge she is still alive.
Although a member of the Shostakovich circle, her work seems to speak more against the Russian tradition than within it. In fact, she is one of those artists whom one understands better by saying what she is not, what her music does not attempt. This paradox seems to go to the heart of an aural imagination generated out of agnostic scrutiny and precisioned negations.
The six piano sonatas span her mature career, the first four come between 1947 and 1957 and are contemporaneous with and analogous to the Twelve Piano Preludes of 1953. The last two are from 1986 and 1988 respectively. And indeed, in terms of musical procedures, the earlier works form a group.
If modern piano virtuosity follows broadly either the orchestral imagination leading back to Liszt or the digital imagination, then this is digital piano music with a vengeance. The orchestral imagination treats the piano as a surrogate orchestra, with the sweep and colorings and brilliance of its many timbres. Focused on the span of the hand with its breadth of chords, arpeggios and runs, this style of music writing and playing came to perfection in Russia at the turn of the century with Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and has dominated much piano training for the last one hundred years. It is still, even in places like Julliard in this country, associated with Russia as an unbroken tradition. Its aim is to create aural experiences of richly nuanced colors and ultimately to shape an emotional voyage for the listener on a grand scale. It assumes a response in listeners that transcends or goes beyond the materiality of sound and the instrument producing it.
By contrast, the digital imagination thinks in terms of fingers, individual notes, keys, and separately articulated contrapuntal lines. This is the imagination of Bach's solo keyboard works and of Haydn and Hindemith, exemplified by Glenn Gould. It asks listeners to be in the presence of aural patterns as they are specifically articulated in real time.
For a Russian composer to willfully exclude from her sound world the bravura, sprezzatura, virtuosity, pianism and eloquence of the symphonic piano vocabulary is indeed a radical and startling choice. But this is exactly what Ustvolskaya does. Instead of carrying listeners on a far-reaching ride or voyage, she rivets our attention to the piano itself, its place in this time as a source of pure sound, its temporal boundedness, its essential capacity as a mallet on string percussion instrument to sound very loud and very quiet. The intensity and tenacity with which she demands that we just listen is both exhilarating and deeply disturbing.
This CD contains six works. Like me, I suspect many listeners will find they must take them one or two (at most) at a time-such is their demand on our attention, such is their ferocity of focus. Oleg Malov was close to the composer and premiered many of these works. He seems to understand Ustvolskya's intentions perfectly. One cannot imagine his performances bettered. Indeed, No.3 was written for him.
The piano that is uncovered, or perhaps recovered, for us by these works is sparse, dry, sometimes percussive, and highly articulate. Every detail of melodic line, every voice of counterpoint, every rhythmic cell, every jarring cluster, and every pianissimo/fortissimo contrast, is placed before the ear for precise acknowledgment. Ustvolskaya permits no emotive blurring, no sustaining pedals, no rubatos, no arpeggios, and no grace notes or filigree embellishments. Nothing but listening is required. How big a task mere listening turns out to be.
Sonata No.1 (1949) is a tight four movement affair of Haydnesque dimensions. In order, a muscular two-part invention movement, a frisky march-like movement striding up and down the keyboard, a sparse chorale, and a final movement of two part counterpoint with contrasted piano timbres that builds to a violent attack at the end. Sonatas 2, 3 and 4 in various ways exfoliate the features that No.1 classically lays out.
Sonata No.2 (1949) is in one movement (only seven minutes). Like the third section of No.1, it contrasts slow choral figures with simple fugato inventions, building to a quick driving crescendo.
Sonata No.3 (1952) is the longest of the set (almost sixteen minutes). It exploits the features of No.1's final movement-short episodic sections that display the timbres of piano sound produced from an aggressive digital technique. The absence of rubato and suspension petal accentuates the crystalline dry sound and the eschewal of expressive orchestral effects. If No.1 lays out its material with Hadynesque classicism and Nos. 2 and 3 exfoliate specific textures of that material, Sonata No.4 (1957) fragments and disintegrates those very textures, as if to declare an end to the digital sonata as original perfected in the late eighteenth century. No.4 is thirteen minutes of short wildly contrasted episodes laid out in linear fashion with relentless rejection of notions of development, argument, and narrative climax. In the fallout from this willful destruction of form and argument, we are left with the sound of the piano in its purest untranscended actuality.
When Ustvolskaya returned to the piano sonata thirty years later, she made no attempt either to resurrect the original form nor to repeat the disintegrating attack on it of No.4; instead she invents a new set of aural materials based on tone clusters. With Sonata No.5 (1986) and Sonata No.6 (1988), the idiom reminds one of the barbarous style of Bartok or the toccata style of Prokofiev in which the piano is a percussion machine with mallets striking against strung wires; except, unlike them, Ustvolskaya does not generate a sweeping development towards narrative and climax. Her percussive clusters exist isolated in the immediacy of the aural space and time in which they are sounded. Where Bartok and Prokofiev generate frenzy and "artful" primitivism, Ustvolskaya sets before our ears austerity and essentialism. No.5 and No.6 are comparable in their reliance on simple repetitions and their relentless exploitation of clusters and their alarming contrasts of loud and quiet; however, a remarkable difference distinguishes them. No.5 has a brief passage near the end in which quite unexpectedly the clusters are sounded at extreme pianissimo with the sustaining petal. This passage reverberates surprisingly with an impressionist hush to it. By contrast, the end of No.6 explodes in a fortissimo of rapid hammering chords that splash up and down the keyboard and abruptly cease.
To engage the aural imagination of Galina Ustvolskaya is to interrogate the entire tradition of western pianism, its hierarchical placement of the sonata as the genre of a composer's most personal (even autobiographical) utterance, its gestures towards transcendence and narrativity, its reliance on symphonic analogies. By turning the piano back to its materiality as an instrument of loud and quiet sound, she invites us to remake out time in listening.