The Orchestre de chambre I Musici de Montréal is an award-winning 15-piece chamber orchestra whose vast repertoire ranges from baroque music to contemporary music. Founded in 1983 by cellist and [...]
They spoke about it
“All three works on this recording were written in 1946, one of the darkest years for Russian culture. There was a real pogrom in Soviet literature that year, which only served as a dress rehearsal for the pogrom of Soviet music two years later, when Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Miaskovsky, Khachaturian and many other Soviet composers of the highest rank were officially and publically reprimanded for writing ‘formalist’ music.”
Galynin: Piano Concerto No. 1
Don’t bother looking up German Germanovich Galynin (1922-1966), Russian composer in the usually dependable Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, edited by that indomitable fount of musical fact and truth, Nicolas Slonimsky (himself of Russian descent). He isn’t there. Nor is he in the surveys of Russian music by Boris Schwarz, Gerald Abraham, Francis Maes or Amy Nelson (the latter two published in the twenty-first century). Stanley D. Krebs accords him a smallish chapter in his 1970 outline history of Soviet composers, and he rates just one small paragraph in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Not much.
German (or Hermann) Galynin (also spelled Galinin; accent on the second syllable) had the misfortune to live under the dark shadow of Stalin’s suffocating cultural policies, and he has remained almost totally unknown outside of Russia. Yuli Turovsky, acting on memories of having performed some of Galynin’s music before emigrating from Moscow in 1976, and with the aid of colleagues still living there, has undertaken to bring his music to the west.
Galynin grew up an orphan, his parents probably having died in the famines that swept Russia in the 1920s. He attended a detdom, (orphanage), which, like the Venetian Pietà of Vivaldian fame, emphasized musical training. Galynin’s musical talents were recognized early, and he learned to play the balalaika, domra and piano as well as the rudiments of composition. In 1941 he might have entered a conservatory, but chose instead to enlist in the army. Two years later he entered the Moscow Conservatory, where Dmitri Shostakovich became one of his teachers. When Shostakovich was severely criticized for “formalist tendencies” in the infamous attack by Zhdanov in 1948, Galynin too felt the icy breath of Party officialdom down his back. Nevertheless, in 1951 he won a Stalin Prize for his Epic Poem on Folk Themes for orchestra. The Stalin Prize, however, was a double-edged sword; it could be withdrawn at any time, at the whim of Stalin or one of his henchmen, and Galynin lived the rest of his short life in fear bordering on paranoia, spending much time in hospitals and psychiatric wards. His premature death at the age of 44 went virtually unnoticed in the west.
The first of Galynin’s two piano concertos dates from 1946 (a second appeared in 1956), but was not publicly performed until 1955, the year the score was published. Two Soviet recordings appeared, one in 1946, the other in 1955, but this Analekta CD would appear to be the first in the west.
Yuli Turovsky relates his familiarity with the concerto since childhood while a student at the Moscow Central Music School (an affiliate of the Conservatory): “Everyone had to learn piano, and I even attempted to play this concerto, though without success. Yet I always remembered and loved it. I think it is significant that half a century later I still find it a work of amazing freshness and spontaneity. The themes have an almost Mozartian simplicity and naïveté touched with humour and playfulness. The central slow movement conveys an aura of tragedy and pathos, even anger, at its climax, and is comparable to what Shostakovich achieved in some of his movements. Yes, there are obvious influences from Shostakovich and Prokofiev, yet there is also a mark of individuality quite remarkable for a composer still in his early twenties.”
The first movement is in sonata form, built from three themes. The second movement extensively develops two themes in turn, the dreamlike second rising to a mighty climax at which point the first theme returns to conclude the movement. The scintillating finale is the expected rondo movement.
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony in F major, op. 73a, for strings, winds and harp
(transcription by Rudolf Barshai of Quartet No. 3, Op. 73)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) turned to the string quartet relatively late in his career, his first work in the genre appearing only in 1938 after he had composed his Fifth Symphony. It was another six years before he turned again to the string quartet. By now he had written eight symphonies, some of them of Mahlerian proportions. Hence, we have the strange case of the most significant composer of string quartets (fifteen of them) since Beethoven with no “early” works in the genre.
The Third Quartet was written in 1946, three years after the Eighth Symphony, one of Shostakovich’s trilogy of “War” symphonies (Nos. 7, 8 and 9). The Third Quartet bears striking resemblances to this symphony. Both works are in five movements, both are artistic statements born of tragedy and suffering, and while the Quartet, at about 35 minutes is not as long as the sixty-minute symphony, each is a work of grand scale and proportion. Furthermore, each contains a brutal, march-like second movement, a third movement depicting the destructive power of war, and a fourth in the form of a passacaglia, “a requiem in [its] depth of inner sorrow” in the words of Yoritoyo Inouye. The quartet’s first movement opens with a seemingly light-hearted theme set to the polka rhythm, but there is an almost relentless undercurrent of mordant wit and grotesquerie throughout. This is not happy music. The finale offers a note of tentative hope, of smiling through the tears.
Shostakovich originally provided titles for each movement, but suppressed them upon publication: 1. Calm unawareness of the coming cataclysm; 2. Rumblings of unrest and anticipation; 3. The forces of war unleashed; 4. Homage to the dead; 5. The eternal question – Why? And what for?
The Third Quartet was dedicated to the Beethoven String Quartet, which gave the world premiere on December 16 (Beethoven’s birthday), 1946 at the Moscow Conservatory. Conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai arranged the quartet for string orchestra, woodwinds and harp in 1990, in which form it became Op. 73a. (The score was revised in 2003.) According to the composer Edison Denisov, Shostakovich considered the Third Quartet to be one of his finest compositions.
Ustvolskaya: Piano Concerto
Galina Ustvolskaya (b. 1919) is one of the many Russian composers whose name has only recently become known outside her homeland. She was born in St. Petersburg when it went by the name of Petrograd, lived through its entire duration as Leningrad, and still resides in the city that once again goes by its original name. Ustvolskaya studied at the music school associated with the Leningrad Conservatory from 1937 to 1939, then entered the Conservatory itself, where she studied from 1940 to 1950 excepting a four-year hiatus during the war. Her teachers there included Maximilian Steinberg, Dmitri Shostakovich (who at one point asked her to marry him) and Georgi Rimsky-Korsakov (nephew of the famous composer Nicolai). From 1948 to 1977 Ustvolskaya taught at this prestigious institution. She now lives as a recluse, granting no interviews, refusing photographs (the one currently in circulation is more than three decades old) and even avoiding premieres of her music.
Although she escaped the official condemnation that plagued Shostakovich and Prokofiev, among others, her music was nevertheless branded as being “narrow-minded” and “obstinate,” and was rarely performed during the Stalin years. But Shostakovich thought highly enough of her to ask her opinion of his manuscripts, and he quoted her music twice in his own compositions (the Fifth Quartet and the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo). Artists like cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor Evgeny Mravinsky and pianist Anatoly Ugorski have championed her music.
Many of Ustvolskaya’s works have a progressive bent to them, and are often written for wildly improbable instrumental combinations. These include Composition No. 1 (piccolo, tuba, piano), Composition No. 3 (4 flutes, 4 bassoons, piano) and the Octet (2 oboes, 4 violins, timpani, piano). Nearly every one of her compositions is for or with piano, including four of the five symphonies. The Piano Concerto, the six Piano Sonatas, the Grand Duet for Cello and Piano and the Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano rank among her most important works.
Ustvolskaya’s only concerto dates from 1946 and remains her earliest extant composition. She was still a Conservatory student at the time (age 27), so it has more of a romantic quality and tonal orientation (C major/minor) to it than do many of her later compositions. Yet it also displays attributes that were to mark her style henceforth, especially an exceptional degree of emotional intensity; a hard-edged, even percussive sound; and the use of violent contrasts of range and dynamics. Pianist Alexei Lubimov finds in this work “the aggression born of despair and the prostration of silent prayer.” The first performance of the concerto was given in Moscow in 1969 with its dedicatee Pavel Serebryakov as soloist. As Yuli Turovsky notes, “the very fact that the premiere had to wait 23 years is eloquent testimony to the tragic fate of many highly talented Soviet artists, those who weren’t destroyed, that is.”
The seventeen-minute concerto is in a single movement consisting of several linked episodes. A rhythmic figure (short-long, short-long) announced by the soloist and repeated by strings in the opening bars (Lento assai) serves as the pervasive unifying motif of the concerto. A sudden change of pace (Allegro moderato) brings a headlong rush of sixteenth notes, with piano and strings passing musical material playfully back and forth. Another sudden change of tempo brings the Andante cantabile, which begins dolce and rises to a peak of intensity before the arrival of the passage marked “Cadenza,” surely one of the strangest in the repertory inasmuch as it offers no opportunities whatsoever for displays of temperament or virtuosity. Next comes a Largo interlude. This slowly gains momentum until the music is essentially moving along in a healthy allegro tempo. The remainder of the concerto consists of an almost obsessive development of the short-long rhythmic motif that introduced the work, culminating in a grandiose peroration in C major.
© Robert Markow