Music of Today – Ustvolskaya

Symphony No.5, ’Amen’
Composition No.3, ’Dies Irae’

Timothy West (reciter)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 February, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The presence of Galina Ustvolskaya’s music in the “Music of Today” series some six years ago raised more than a few eyebrows, and it was right that the same programme be repeated – now with a typically probing introductory talk by Gerard McBurney – in this 10th anniversary season.

Now aged 82, Ustvolskaya was for long an unknown quantity in Soviet music, and though her famed reclusiveness and antipathy to discussing her music have not lessened, the small but powerful body of work she acknowledges has made a considerable impact in the West over the last decade. Focusing on her later work is certainly a ’deep end’ experience for those coming to it afresh, though the Fifth Symphony (1990 – Ustvolskaya’s five symphonies increasingly transform all preconceptions of the genre) features a text known to everyone of a remotely Christian background.

Not that this ’Amen’ is a straightforward setting of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Rather the text is broken up and key phrases repeated over the 11-minute span, resulting in a mantra-like incantation. Timothy West gave a thoughtful recitation, though it would be idle to pretend that the heightened emotion built up over the symphony’s duration was no more than hinted at. No doubting the dedication of the ensemble, however, in conveying the impact of what is likely to remain the composer’s swansong.

A typical feature of Ustvolskaya’s later music is the large wooden cube played with plywood hammers – not a percussion instrument as such, but a means of punctuating of her music with archetypal Christian associations. It features even more prominently in the Second Composition (1973), her most extreme piece in scoring – eight double basses, piano and cube – and form. The ten sections of the Third Composition, ’Dies Irae’, neither repeat nor develop each other, and any sense of linear follow-through is due to the tension resulting from amassing dense chord clusters over the 20-minute span. Tough but never gruelling listening, and Martyn Brabbins rightly ensured the clear separation of sections, in what might cautiously be likened to free variations on the chordal entity heard at the outset.

Audience response to both works was thoughtfully nonplussed, a recognition that something of uncertain but crucial import was being heard. In all senses, Ustvolskaya’s music remains in a class of its own – to be approached with respect, maybe admiration and certainly awe.

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