Monday, 13 August 2018
Galina Ustvolskaya - Compositions I - III (composed 1970-75, rec. '93, rel. '95)
Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) spent her life in Petrograd/Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, and channeled all of the upheaval that went with those name changes into powerful, cathartic music. I've still to take the plunge with her notorious Piano Sonatas, apparently physically painful to play; this is where I started, with the three 'Compositions' written during the early-mid 70s. Each has a subtitle taken from traditional Mass liturgy, but unlike Sofia Gubaidulina Ustvolskaya never professed any faith, and her use of religious tropes was purely for artistic style.
As with much of Ustvolskaya's output, the Composition cycle uses odd instrumentation, with the three-part Composition I (Dona Nobis Pacem) being an ominous cat-and-mouse game for piano, tuba and piccolo. Following this is the ten part, 21-minute Composition II (Dies Irae), which is the most dramatic demonstration of Ustvolskaya's 'blocks of sound' style, with its attendant extreme dynamics. Heavily featured here is the "Ustvolskaya cube", a wooden chipboard box played with beaters, as well as piano and eight double basses. After this exhausting listen, Composition III (Benedictus Qui Venit) for four flutes, four bassoons and piano is positively relaxing by comparison. A hugely recommended listening experience - make sure you're sitting comfortably.