Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya had much to say about what her music was not: According to her, the oeuvre wasn’t indebted to that of any prior composer (including her teacher, Shostakovich). It wasn’t “chamber music,” either, despite the relatively spare number of musicians required to perform much of her work (including all the three pieces on this album). She also insisted on a spiritual dimension to her art, claiming that it lost something in a “secular” setting.
In rejecting these tropes and associations, it would seem that Ustvolskaya was trying to encourage listeners to hear her music on its own supremely self-assured terms. It’s a tough standard to meet, on a recording — though it’s one that any new album of Ustvolskaya works should attempt to create anyway. This one pulls off that task both in its moments of fireworks and in the sections of eerie quiet.
For that, we can thank ECM’s all-star cast. Early in the 2014 season, rising violin star Patricia Kopatchinskaja performed two of the pieces on this album at a rapturously received late-night concert at Berlin’s Philharmonie. Captured in the studio by ECM’s engineers, the animated young Moldavian shows off an even greater range of textures, especially in her approach to the album opener, the composer’s 1952 “Sonata for violin and piano.”
When it comes to the piece’s marching five-note motif, the violinist’s control of dynamics is the main event: Depending on the composer’s needs, Kopatchinskaja can sing out with some vibrato, or else play with a degree of scraping angst that can go up against any other genre, when it comes to making a hardcore noise. The sound-making body of the violin is fore-grounded so thoroughly in this performance that the piece’s unusual conclusion — in which the violinist taps the wood, softer and softer — seems like a fully logical finale.
Her partner in this duo, pianist Markus Hinterhäuser, is just as stellar. The piano part in the Sonata leads him away — as if in a hypnotic trance — from the maniacal edge carved out by the violin writing. But it’s important that the divergent lines for the two instruments not feel alienated from one another. Hinterhäuser, who has recorded Ustvolskaya’s solo piano music, has the right touch, and maintains a subtle accord with the violinist (even when she’s at her most fevered). The pair brings this same understanding to Ustvolskaya’s 1964 “Duet for violin and piano” — a less thrashing piece, but no less haunting.
In between these works is the composer’s 1949 “Trio for clarinet, violin and piano” (which, on this recording, features Reto Bieri). The music here — especially in the last movement — is more lyrical (maybe even a touch Shostakovich-like). And while, for this reason, it may not be high-church Ustvolskaya, it’s great to have — especially as it can play a satisfying role on the album, sequenced in between the two marathon duos. Taken as a whole, the lavish gifts of these performers and the excellent production have done this often-unattended composer a dedicated and intense service.