WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 4; Piano Sonata No. 5; Piano Sonata No. 6
PERFORMER: Frank Denyer (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 75605 51262 2 DDD
The extraordinary, austere world of Galina Ustvolskaya may seem more familiar now than it did even a year ago, with recordings of some of her major instrumental works now available on major labels. But the music itself gets no easier to integrate into the received scheme of 20th-century music in general and Soviet postwar music in particular.
Ustvolskaya’s ruthless fining down of her material, and her bald, unsentimental presentation of it, remain disturbing, and seem to demand some extra-musical content to justify its austerity: the notes to the Koch recording talk of the ‘Old Testament’ force of her language, and there seems to be a biblical certainty about what she does, and why.
The six piano sonatas in Conifer’s collection fall into two groups – the first four were composed between 1947 and 1957, and seem to trace a path towards increasing introspection, while the Fifth and Sixth appeared in 1987 and 1988 respectively. The Fifth’s ten tiny movements use an extreme range of dynamics, and the sound level of the Sixth is also almost unbearably intense. Denyer’s performances don’t flinch from this terrifying bleakness, and almost emphasise its raw sound quality at times.
The Sixth Sonata also appears on the Koch collection in a marginally less abrasive performance, together with Ustvolskaya’s Twelve Preludes from 1953, though no one would gather that from the front cover of the disc, which prefers to concentrate upon the inclusion of Górecki’s vapid First Sonata and Pärt’s two negligible miniatures. Andrew Clements