About this Recording
GP678 - USTVOLSKAYA, G.I. / SILVESTROV, V. / KANCHELI, G.: Piano and Orchestra Works (E. Blumina, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, T. Sanderling)
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Ustvolskaya • Silvestrov • Kancheli
Works for Piano and Orchestra


Galina Ustvolskaya was born in Petrograd in 1919, educated in Leningrad, and died in St Petersburg in 2006. The name changes of her native city reflect some of the tumultuous political and social upheavals in Russian history during the course of the twentieth century: revolution, Stalinism, glasnot, to mention but three. It was amid such turbulence that Ustvolskaya lived and composed. Much has been written about her professional and personal relationship with Shostakovich, but she took grave exception to the fact that she was always defined in terms of her gender and by whom she was taught—Shostakovich. In 1994 she declared that not once ‘during my studies at the Conservatoire, which I spent in his class, was Shostakovich’s music close to me. Nor was his personality’. Even at the age of 80 she complained that her music was still being compared to Shostakovich’s rather than being judged on its own terms. Ustvolskaya believed that she was patronised as a woman composer, with the implication that in some ways she was perceived as a lesser artist. Drawing comparisons between her own creative approach and that of her fellow Russian composers, she acidly remarked that the men were never defined solely in terms of their sex and who their teachers were. To lend force to her argument, she said how unlikely it is that one would come across an article beginning ‘Rodion Shchedrin is a male composer and pupil of Yuri Shaporin…’

Words like ‘reclusive’ and ‘uncompromising’ are regularly used in connection with Ustvolskaya. She also had a reputation for being a ‘religious-ecstatic’ composer. Many of her purely instrumental works, for instance, have religious titles, but she maintained that her works ‘are not religious in a literary sense, but are filled with a religious spirit’. There is, however, very little about the Concerto for Piano, Strings and Timpani that fits this received opinion of Ustvolskaya’s music. She composed it in 1946 during her final year at the Leningrad Conservatoire. She was 27 at the time, though this relatively late age for graduating can be explained by the disruptions caused by the Great Patriotic War, especially the Siege of Leningrad. The Concerto was the first work in her catalogue that she was prepared to acknowledge, although it remained unpublished until 1993, when it received a dedication to the pianist Alexei Lubimov (who was born only two years before its composition). This single-movement work is predominantly written in the keys of C minor and C major, quite unlike her later, atonal pieces. There is also a penchant for extremes of dynamics, which went on to become something of a hallmark—so much so, in fact, that the Dutch musicologist Elmer Schonberger subsequently dubbed Ustvolskaya ‘the Lady with the Hammer’. The final section of the Concerto comes under scrutiny in Arnold Whittall’s obituary of Ustvolskaya in The Musical Times. He questions the idea that its merciless repetition offers listeners the possibility of sharing the composer’s vision of beauty, suffering and redemption. Instead, he suggests that ‘there is more desolation than redemption in this music’.

The Georgian composer Giya Kancheli was born in 1935 and studied at the Tbilisi Conservatoire. Now living in Belgium, he is one of the many composers from the former Soviet Union whose music has only become familiar in the West since the 1990s. Although his works have explored the elemental subjects of grief, fear, solitude and protest, they also touch on topics such as nostalgia and innocence. His personal credo is perhaps best expressed in his own words: the music’, like life itself, is inconceivable without romanticism. Romanticism is a high dream of the past, present, and future—a force of invincible beauty which towers above, and conquers, the forces of ignorance, bigotry, violence, and evil.’

Commentators have observed that the distinctive sonorities of Kancheli’s music are born out of his use of silence. Indeed, Kancheli himself has affirmed that what fascinates him most is ‘the mysterious silence that precedes the emergence of a tone’. A striking feature of his music is its use of silence as a means of heightening the listener’s impressions and responses. Many of the composer’s other defining traits, including modal tunes, bass drones and wide dynamic extremes, are derived from Georgian folk music. When these factors are associated with images of Georgian landscape and Georgian folk traditions, the result is a very distinctive sound world such as the one we experience in Sio (a Georgian word for ‘breeze’).

Commissioned by the Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden to mark its 450th anniversary, this single-movement work, scored for strings, piano and percussion, was composed in 1998. The folk-like quality of Sio is apparent right at the outset as a lone violin strikes up a plaintive melody sul ponticello (on the bridge). Near the end of the work, the music is marked pppp, which already seems impossibly quiet, yet from this point onwards the players are directed to get progressively quieter al niente (to nothing). Organised sound subsides, and nature’s silence reigns supreme.

Kancheli is the dedicatee of Hymn, a work for string orchestra written in 2001 by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. In this piece, the traditional groupings of first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and double basses are further subdivided to the extent that for most of the work’s duration each musician is playing a separate part. The mood throughout Hymn is devotional, and the entire piece is a study in quietude—in only one place does the dynamic level even reach mezzo piano.

Valentin Silvestrov was born in Kiev in 1937. After commencing his musical training at the comparatively advanced age of 15, he undertook his formal studies at the Kiev Conservatoire. The January 1961 edition of The Musical Quarterly alludes to an example of ‘a twelve-tone piece by Valentin Silvestrov, a young Ukrainian composer’. However, since the 1970s he has radically shifted his compositional approach in the direction of what has been called a ‘metaphorical’ and ‘allegorical’ style, one that contains a strong dose of romanticism. He maintains that ‘music is still song, even if one cannot literally sing it: it is not a philosophy, not a world-view. It is, above all, a chant, a song the world sings about itself—it is the musical testimony to life.’

Silvestrov’s ‘metaphorical’ style has yielded a corpus of slow and extremely detailed Postludes that appear Mahlerian through the manner in which they deal with the vastness of time and subtle decay. The elegiac Four Postludes for Piano and Strings, which were composed in 2004, observe these characteristics. Dedicated to the Ukrainian conductor Valery Matyukhin, these movements explore the composer’s relationship with silence, and are testament to his belief: ‘I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.’

Anthony Short

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