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COMPOSERS: Ustvolskaya
ALBUM TITLE: Ustvolskaya
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 1-6
PERFORMER: Olga Pashchenko, Ksenia Semenova, Alexei Grotz, Elizaveta Miller, Vladimir Ivanov, Alexei Lubimov (piano)


Galina Ustvolskaya was Shostakovich’s favourite and probably most radical pupil. Of her six piano sonatas, the first three were written under Stalin – Nos 2 and 3 at the height of the repressive cultural policy of ‘Socialist Realism’ – yet all are uncompromising and remarkably consistent in their austere and flinty style. To appreciate the variety within their stretches of jarring counterpoint and aggressive pounding requires something approaching zen-like concentration both from performer and from their audience.


Alexei Lubimov, a brave champion of the avant garde even during the Soviet years, here joins five of his pupils to perform the cycle in a single performance. In the booklet note Lubimov claims the Moscow School of Dramatic Art’s Globe Hall presents an appropriate venue not only for its Fazioli piano, but also its intimate octahedron shape whose ‘cramped space concentrated sounds and carried them upwards’ to its audience. Maybe, but that limited space appears to have severely restricted the camera angles available: most are either of the pianist in profile, or an overhead shot of the piano with the pianist’s hands well out of view. And while all but one of the performances are very good (the exception being Sonata No. 1, played far too fast and untidily), most of the pianists’ faces appear inscrutable as they perform. One notable exception is Vladimir Ivanov, his hands all a-quiver yet turning in a well-shaped and dramatic account of Sonata No. 5, who is given the warmest applause. The other is Lubimov himself, playing Sonata No. 6 – thick with note clusters including several forearm crashes – with the studiousness of a surgeon or a sculptor. Alas, there is no indication – even through optional subtitles – where each movement or section within individual sonatas starts, a fault not shared by Sabine Liebner’s very fine complete recording on Neos Contemporary. Daniel Jaffé