Summary for the Busy Executive: Nerves, and for good reason.
This CD features works by Shostakovich and two of his pupils, German (ie, Herman) Galynin (for some reason, spelled "Galinin" on the disc) and Galina Ustvolskaya. All three works appeared in their original form in 1946, just after the devastating Great Patriotic War and just into the horror of Stalin's final paranoia. Galynin is not well-known outside of Russia. I, for example, have heard only this piano concerto, almost forty years ago on an obscure Soviet recording marketed briefly in the United States on the Orion label. About ten years ago, Ustvolskaya began to become a more familiar figure outside her own country.
One can regard this disc as lessons in how various artists respond to oppressive censorship. All three composers had been scolded by various regimes. Shostakovich and Galynin wound up on the Zhdanov 1946 hit list of "formalist" composers (whatever that may mean), along with others like Prokofieff, Khachaturian, Miaskovsky, and just about any other Soviet composer you've heard of, as well as many you haven't. Shostakovich, as he'd been doing since the Thirties, wrote both treasure and trash, mainly to placate the Party. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the stress from thugs in power shortened his life. Galynin, unnerved by the experience, wound up in Soviet psychiatric hospitals and died in his early forties. Ustvolskaya filled her public time during the Communist era writing official drivel but also composed in secret for her desk drawer. With the official passing of the Soviet state (though these days, God knows, it seems to be sneaking in through the back door), the "secret" music has begun to make its way to the West.
Both Galynin and Ustvolskaya studied with Shostakovich. Galynin practically becomes Shostakovich. His first piano concerto – a terrific, vital work – could be called the Shostakovich 1.5, a cross between the cheeky Modernism of the latter's first and the bright spirits of the second. One can find many Shostakovich fingerprints, particularly the "William Tell Overture" rhythm (ba-da-dum ba-da-dum ba-da-dum-dum-dum). Nevertheless, this concerto yields nothing to either one by the master. It makes me eager to hear more Galynin.
Ustvolskaya impressed Shostakovich not only with her music, but with her person. He asked her to marry him. Her reaction – typical, I'm afraid – was revulsion. Not only does she take every opportunity to bad-mouth Shostakovich as a human being, she also takes it out on his music. Ustvolskaya has a history of cutting off anyone who has ever helped her – performers, teachers, conductors, and so on – and lives as a recluse. She claims that Shostakovich influenced her musically not at all, an assertion belied by her own scores. She has considerable originality, of course, but she owes a debt to Shostakovich's more intense music – symphonies 6 and 10, both violin concerti, the eighth string quartet, and so on – a debt she will probably never will acknowledge. If genius correlated with bad behavior, Ustvolskaya would be Bach.
The piano concerto comes before the period of her formal apprenticeship to Shostakovich. The piano writing resembles that of Shostakovich's first piano concerto. The psychological landscape, bleak and hellish, comes from the sixth symphony or perhaps the nervier parts of the second piano trio. Ustvolskaya does move beyond the specifics of Shostakovich's style, but she discovers a similar emotional place – dour, raw, and painfully spare. The music obsesses (as in the closing pages, on a long-short rhythm) and lets in very little light or air, like sitting for hours in a dark closet. Shostakovich tries to give us a broad range of experience: one deals with the neurosis and tragedy of the sixth symphony, but also with the buoyancy of the ninth. Ustvolskaya is a powerful composer but she confines her art (and apparently her life) to a much narrower, even claustrophobic experience, like a Ryder painting. The music speaks of very little, although compellingly.
The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony appeared in 1990. Conductor Rudolf Barshai of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra arranged the third string quartet for strings, winds, and harp. It undoubtedly fulfills – and admirably – a programming need, since it has received at least three recordings and many performances in the past fifteen years. Incidentally, Barshai also did the same for the fourth, eighth, and tenth string quartets. The question remains whether the orchestration adds anything artistically significant to the original. I haven't decided. On the one hand, the orchestration clarifies the musical matter. On the other, a sense of performers' struggle is diminished, something I believe essential to the piece. The third quartet relates to Shostakovich's war symphonies and, in fact, originally had programmatic titles the composer dropped before publication: "Calm unawareness of the coming cataclysm"; "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"; "The forces of war unleashed"; "Homage to the dead"; "The eternal question – Why? And what for?" You can see at least what preyed on the composer's mind, even if you don't agree with the meaning he ascribed to the music's affect. In a way, the program strikes me as too ambitious for the quartet, although the quartet is indeed a powerful one. The first movement comes over as something more formal, more purely musical – a dialogue of two contrasting ideas (one blithe, the other ominous) – than what we normally expect from Shostakovich's work. The fourth movement interests me in that it shows Shostakovich channeling the Eroica funeral march, a pointer to the Beethoven fascination of his late works.
The performances are uniformly splendid. The Galynin and the Ustvolskaya move to the front of the line of other recordings. In the case of the Galynin, this is easy. However, the Ustvolskaya has had at least two previous recordings, one from Russia with Oleg Malov as soloist, the other from England with conductor Charles Mackerras and pianist Ingrid Jacoby. Both give committed accounts. However, Salov brings something new to the Ustvolskaya – a wonderful lyricism I hadn't thought possible in this music, without sacrificing intensity. The Shostakovich receives a reading both passionate and brimming with subtle detail. The recorded sound ranks almost with the best I've heard, although it is a trifle "wet."
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz