Ustvolskaya: Compositions I, II & III

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COMPOSERS: Ustvolskaya
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Compositions I, II & III
PERFORMER: Schönberg Ensemble/Reinbert de Leeuw
CATALOGUE NO: 442 532-2 DDD
Though a pupil and close friend of Shostakovich, Galina Ustvolskaya (b.1919) is completely uninterested in the things which have made her teacher popular: melody, tonality, symphonic development… Even her titles give away everything and nothing: Compositions I, II and III, with the subtitles ‘Dona nobis pacem’, ‘Dies irae’ and ‘Benedictus qui venit’, respectively. The cycle was written between 1970 and 1975.

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The instrumentation is, to say the least, unusual: to the piano common to all three pieces the first adds piccolo and tuba; the second, eight double basses and a ‘cube (43 x 43 cm)’; the third piece, four flutes and four bassoons. As for the music itself, only words such as highly dissonant, relentless, repetitive, static, obsessive and extreme (especially registrally) appear appropriate. Though there is dynamic contrast, the music is sometimes very loud, with lots of rhythmic unison. Piccolo and tuba seem to shriek and grunt for mercy rather than for peace; the piano manically pounds out single lines or is confined to cluster duty; the ‘cube’ turns out to be the harbinger of the Last Judgement.

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Three-quarters of an hour of ‘cries of help that are born of affliction’, as Theo Hirsbrunner’s booklet notes put it; and it’s strangely compelling stuff. The Dutch performances, using a church acoustic as specified, seem to take the composer at her weird word. Keith Potter