The piano sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya have attracted a surprising number of pianists to the recording studios. Here, Divine Art presents the 11th part of its Russian Piano Music series and offers a breath-taking twofer. “Breath-taking” is for the breadth of insight Natalia Andreeva brings to these scores. Andreeva even pens her own booklet notes, which are a model of their kind: musical, learned, even scholarly. A page of 35 references attests to Andreeva’s activities as “researcher” (a label quoted from her biography) as well as pianist.

What is important to realize about the music of Galina Ustvolskaya is its utterly uncompromising quality. Ustvolskaya did not like to be compared to other composers, but a period of study with Shostakovich necessarily means the listener will hold out for a snippet of that composer. Seek, and you shall find, inevitably. But Ustvolskaya has a voice all of her own. There is a Webernian concision to her expressive means; nothing is wasted, nothing is frivolous. She prefers dynamic extremes (ffffff and ppppp both appear in her scores), cluster notation, and her music has the ability to flow, notationally freed from bar lines.

The sonatas span the period 1947 to 1988, with No. 1–4 composed between 1947 and 1957; the remaining two date from much later (1986 and 1988). The first was premiered in 1952 by Oleg Malov; I mention this as Malov himself has recorded these works. Malov’s recordings, on Megadisc, do not presently appear on ArkivMusic, so I assume they are unavailable or at the very least tricky to trace; they are, however, reviewed in the Fanfare Archive (Mike Silverton’s review appeared in Fanfare 19:1, in 1995).

While Ustvolskaya frequently eludes any easy categorization or comparison with other composers, her music remains somehow immediately Russian. Perhaps it is the darkness at its core, its forbidding Mussorgskian cragginess. While Andreeva states that her interpretation of the First Sonata is “full of positive, optimistic energy,” where others have seen this piece as “one of melancholy, dark prophecy and presentiment,” the music seems to the present writer to speak of the latter, certainly in its slow second movement; in fairness, the slowly rocking fourth and final movement offers chinks of light and even hints at redemption. Ice on granite catching the Russian winter sunlight, should one wish to wax poetic.

The Second Sonata’s forbidding opening becomes even more so as time passes. The harmonies are fascinating, a sort of Scriabin but one that is more bound to our planet, less to the etheric. Moments where the music threatens to set up some sort of rhythmic regularity tend to end up as cul-de-sacs; similarly, imitation can end almost before it begins, leaving us with hints of avenues that will never be fully explored.

Andreeva states she wants her interpretation of the Third Sonata to be “full of pathos,” and her understanding of Ustvolskaya’s sound world ensures her reading is completely convincing. The distancing effect of lines performed with absolutely equal attack on each note is really quite disconcerting; particularly where there is no easy endpoint of repose to find solace in. Such a way was not Ustvolksaya’s.

It is difficult to believe that the Fourth Sonata was originally published under the title “Sonatina.” This is not Ustvolskaya-lite: Far from it, and perhaps the composer’s “correction” of the title to fully-fledged “Sonata” reflects this. There is magic in the first movement’s registral extremes and slowly shifting sound shapes (probably the best way to describe them; or perhaps “sound shadows” is even closer?). There is magic, particularly, in Andreeva’s hushed, almost reverent delivery. The trills of the finale seem to be extracted from late Beethoven in their independent, buzzing energy, and in fact it might not be too ridiculous to suggest that Ustvolskaya inhabits something of the same sometimes rarefied, sometimes angry world of that composer.

The Fifth Sonata marks Ustvolskaya’s return to the piano sonata after some 30 years. Cast in 10 sections, Sonata No. 5 contains passages of such purity they seem to imply a distillation of the very essence of sound itself. Andreeva finds massive loneliness in the sections that pit, at very low dynamic level, the extreme upper register of the piano against its lowest extremes. Interestingly, she finds elements of carillon in the piece (referring this to the bells in St. Petersburg, Ustvolskaya’s home city), citing the mode of attack she uses to imitate these; the result, augmented by a splendidly intelligent use of the pedal, is spellbinding. Here, whisperings seek to speak directly to the soul; but of what? This might easily be music of the Abyss (the desolate penultimate section especially).

The deep, chthonic opening to the Sixth Sonata reminds us how Ustvolskaya’s music can speak to the listener in the most physical of ways as well as the most spiritual. Nowhere, interestingly, does Andreeva merely pound the piano, and the music gains immeasurably in expressivity.
The 1953 Preludes, heard first in the playing order, include the quizzical and the cryptic as modes of utterance. Perhaps they link in some ways to Shostakovich’s op. 11 Preludes in their ability to hint at enormous worlds in brief spaces of time. The driving energy of Ustvolskaya’s No. 5, with its bell-like gesture pitted right next to glassy stasis, even hints at more than one world, all within 90 seconds. Andreeva plays the quieter preludes as if she is handling a holy object, and it is this sense of wonder that projects a very particular feeling of interiorization.

Listening straight through to 90 minutes of Ustvolskaya is a harrowing, yet curiously uplifting, experience. Strongly recommended as a reminder of the sheer power music can wield.

—Colin Clarke