Years after her death, and even longer after her music finally emerged from the Soviet Union, the West is still discovering "Dmitri Shostakovich student Galina Ustvolskaya," as she has been known for decades—to her justifiable chagrin.
While she certainly did study with the elderly Soviet composer, the implications of that epithet, "Shostakovich student," are misleading. Both she and and the elder Soviet composer protested that the influence between them ran the other way: enthralled by her both musically and personally, he went so far as to quote her music directly in his Fifth String Quartet, whereas her style is almost too uncompromising to allow any external influences at all.
As heard on Ivan Sokolov's new Piano Classics recording of her complete piano works—just six sonatas and 12 preludes, fitting easily onto a two-disc set—Ustvolskaya's music marches forward with relentless, pounding repetition, before falling away with an equally mystifying abruptness, over and over again. Its austere language, relying as it does on an almost brutally simple language of pure sonic events, seems to presage the minimalist and gestural tendencies of the late Soviet and post-Soviet avant garde.
Inscrutable, ominous, ancient, futuristic; indifferent to the currents of musical history, but turning their course in a new direction; utterly still, but brimming with violence: think of Ustvolskaya's work as the the black monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey." It seems to have been less invented than discovered.
For this set, the sonatas are arranged in chronological order, so that listeners can start with Sonata No. 1 and wade their way into the deep end of dissonance with No. 6, through a series of works that bear less and less resemblance to the music of Shostakovich even at its most despondent-or rather, through a series of works that the music of Shostakovich, at its very most despondent, sometimes dared to resemble
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