Galina Ustvolskaya: Concerto for piano, strings and timpani
"It's not you who are under my influence, it's me who is under yours". This quote by her teacher Dmitri Shostakovich has become the defining words for the relationship between himself and his pupil, Galina Ustvolskaya. The "teacher-pupil" dynamic notwithstanding, for her own part, Ustvolskaya spent her life trying to distance herself from her violent relationship with Shostakovich. This seems an obvious sign of sincerity, the pursuit of impartial and unrestrained untamedness of the composer. These adjectives also certainly best describe the few works that make up her comprehensive output, which made themselves known without adapting to any one style. Though she rarely left her hometown until her death in 2006, she was a part of the music scene in St. Petersburg both under Soviet regime and after its collapse - an enigmatic phenomenon untouched by all political or aesthetic trends. In her case, she chose the life of an outsider completely of her own accord. Ustvolskaya did not tolerate any superficial interference, according to the musicologist Olga Gladkova, out of a desire to maintain her own individuality, compoure, and intentions. Therefore she never took commissions, on the contrary, she refused even partial interpretations of her work if the composer did not appear "real" to her.
Especially in her "Concerto for piano, strings and timpani", written in 1946, the composer starts to withdraw herself from her academic influences, to strike a new path, and to find completely new ways of expression. It is not without motive that she decided to start her official list of works with this concerto. The first noticeable feature is the single-piece form, which is described by the composer as cohesive but still contrasting.
The opening theme is highly concentrated within the Rhythm. No notes seem to be wasteful. The piano breaks out of the silence like an explosion with the specific dotted thirty-second notes in fortissimo that are repeated in unison by the orchestra and which are concluded by the timpani. All the followings motives are developed from the basic theme. Olga Gladkova compared the concentrated main theme with a nuclear reaction - after the explosion many infinitely small atoms are produced, instantaneously destructive and creative. Close beside is a plain melody in subito - pianissimo, circling around itself, not leading anywhere. This is a very fundamental characteristic of the later works by Ustvolskaya. The second theme, which branches out wildly, seems to come rushing in a fugue. But academic processes and stencils are avoided consequently and the fugato is being constantly taken to explore new avenues, like a kaleidoscope, out of which unexpected new pictures are formed. In addition to the rigid and concentrated 4/4 measure, the quiet secondary theme is at the quietly flowing 6/8 measure. The "continuity", which is described by the composer, happens also by the very strong contrasts.
Especially remarkable is the coda of the concerto. The rhythmically striking dotted thirty-second notes are taken from the initial theme and with full force repeated again and again.
An unprecedented massive structure comes into being, which instead of running to the disaster leads into a C major chord, which appears at the moment of most extreme tension and repeats in a big crescendo until the end. The immense focus on one rhythm, the constant repetition of this rhythm and the unbridled force of it, speaks to the forementioned monstrous new language of the composer.
Although the great crescendo of the coda is written in C major, it seems to evoke various kinds of associations. In the dialogue with the young musicians of the ensemble, I would like to describe three different impressions. On the one hand there is the feeling of generous grace, of forgiveness, the cathartic effect after a prayer. Facing this sensation is the feeling of being threatened by a wall that is approaching you relentlessly, without ability to escape. The third association is similar to the theme of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony - forced rejoicing, created under threat. An eagerly awaited end of the war, but an ending with terror.
Translation by Catie Leigh Laszewski