Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Ustvolskaya, Silvestrov, Kancheli – Works for Piano and Orchestra, Elisaveta Blumina

Galina Ustvolskaya: Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani
Valentin Silvestrov: Four Postludes, Hymn
Giya Kancheli: Sio for Orchestra, Piano, and Percussion

Elisaveta Blumina, piano
Thomas Sanderling, conductor
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
Grand Piano GP 678 (58:03)


Elisaveta Blumina and the Grand Piano label have done sterling work in recent years in promoting the piano, both solo and concertante, music of post-Soviet composers. The aesthetic politics here are complicated: Silvestrov and Kancheli are both of a religious Minimalist persuasion, even when writing music, as here, that is completely secular. But that school has increasingly moved into a radical, even confrontational position, with tonality and textural simplicity presented not only without apology, but almost in deliberate contravention of Western tastes. The challenge to Modernism here is obvious, but both composers go further, and if the West is willing to concede a neo-Romantic or Postmodern dimension to recent musical culture, even that is challenged. Kancheli is quoted in the liner note extolling Romanticism, with no “neo-” attached, as ‘a high dream of past, present, and future.’ Conflict seems inevitable, if only at the level of the individual listener coming to terms with this radically ahistoric stance. Blumina herself is Russian but based primarily in Hamburg, a city with a long tradition of supporting recent Russian music (thanks largely to the music publishing industry there), so presumably performs for audiences accustomed to the challenges this music presents. She and her colleges perform the music with real conviction, and there is no sense that the players share my reservations. As such, then, this is an important release, not least because it presents two world premiere recordings, and excellent performances of two other rarely heard works.
Such reflections have little relevance to the first work on the program, although it somehow manages to fit neatly into the ethos of the recording. Galina Ustvolskaya’s Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani was written in 1946 when she was 27 years old and just completing her studies at the Leningrad Conservatory (following a long disruption caused by the siege). The style is some distance from the austere Modernism of Ustvolskaya’s mature work, the single movement written predominantly in the keys of C Major and C Minor. As well as being in a single movement, the music also seems monothematic, with a four-note trochaic motif dominating from start to finish. The composer herself resisted comparisons with her most famous teacher, Shostakovich, but this motif, and its emphatic recurrence, are reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. On the other hand, that insistence, the continual focus on a single idea, repeated through different textures and harmonies, is similar to the approach in her later music: For all its tonal convention, this is music of an insistent and uncompromising bent. And, as often with Shostakovich, the positive and optimistic ending feels at least slightly ironic—exaggerated almost to the point of satire.
No such mixed messages in Silvestrov’s Four Postludes of 2004. Silvestrov specializes in music with a sense of belatedness, hence the regular us of “postlude” in his titles. That can come through in stylistic play, but just as often, as here, it is achieved through an unspecific sense of nostalgia. The music, throughout, is quiet and reflective, typically with the piano giving attacks to chords and textures, which the strings then sustain in clear, uncomplicated, diatonic harmonies. Silvestrov displays an impressive skill in handling this simplicity. The way that silences are integrated into the discourse is always seamless. And although the music is nostalgic, it is never sentimental, giving a sense of focus, even efficiency, to the work’s 16-minute span. The Hymn (2001) that ends the program is in a similar spirit. This work is shorter and is written for strings alone, one to a part. The dynamic never rises above mezzo-piano, and is usually lower, and so the music requires careful concentration, and, again, a sense of deep stillness and reflection is the listener’s reward.
Between, we hear Sio for string orchestra, piano, and percussion by Giya Kancheli. The work is based on, or at least invokes, the folk music of Kancheli’s native Georgia. He explores the available textures and sounds, including some prominent tuned percussion, over what feels like a series of loosely structured variations. Occasional abrupt changes of texture and mood help to define the contours of the work, and to distinguish it from the more flowing and even Silvestrov scores that frame it. But, like Silvestrov, Kancheli favors simple, diatonic textures, doubled between the piano and the strings, and the simplest of accompaniments. For all its melodic appeal, this remains, at least for me, a radical, even provocative aesthetic stance.
Excellent performances throughout from Blumina and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling. This music isn’t about virtuosity or high level technical skills, but the sheer amount of rhythmic unison and the radical simplicity of the textures make perfect ensemble and tuning a key requirement, and that is exactly what we hear. The climax of the Ustvolskaya feels a little underwhelming, but it is difficult to decide whether the performers or the, still little-experienced, composer are to blame. I could also imagine the junctions in the Kancheli to be more pointed, although excessive drama would probably ruin the effect. At the other end of the spectrum, the delicate, quiet string textures are ideal, especially for the Silvestrov. Maintaining that sound throughout the Hymn must be real challenge, and the last of the Postludes gradually disappears to nothing, a beautiful effect, especially as presented here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3

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