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Batter my Heart

Royal Academy of Music
01/28/1999 -  
Galina Ustvolskaya : Composition 2 - Dies irae, Symphony No. 2 - True and eternal bliss (UK première)
Richard Dubugnon : Triptyque (world première)
Galina Ustvolskaya : Symphony No. 3 - Jesu Messiah, save us!, Symphony No. 5, Our Father!

Alex Ashworth (baritone), Evgeny Chebykin (speaker)
Manson Ensemble
John Carewe (conductor)

The festival Dreams and Reflections (at the Royal Academy from 26-29 January 1999) covers two hundred years of Russian music. Its focus is on the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, acknowledged by her teacher Shostakovich as a genius.

Ustvolskaya's composition could be called lapidiary: she has produced comparatively few small and medium-scale works -- for example, five "symphonies" mainly for chamber ensembles, between ten and twenty-five minutes in length. But the effect of her music is often shocking, sometimes brutal. This is in spite of the fact that even during the soviet era she worked with conventional Christian themes and texts. Yet in a way strangely similar to John Cage, she seems to try to evoke the physical, visceral effect of extreme emotion and spirituality.

Ustvolskaya's choice of instruments is always extreme. Composition 2 - Dies irae consists of ten short movements, recalling the verses of the sequence hymn on the final judgement. It is scored for eight double basses, piano, and a plywood box. (Instructions for making this are included in the score, perhaps pointing to a synthesis of proletarian labour and Christianity in carpentry.) The movements, all based on a fairly regular beat, again like the hymn, build up to a climax of complexity and volume, then fall away again. Martin Hoyle in this week's Time Out suggests that the insistent hammering on the box combines nails being hammered into a coffin with the nails hammered into Christ at the crucifixion. The effect is certainly disturbing and evocative.

Symphony No. 2 - True and eternal bliss is scored for a small wind orchestra (six each of flutes, oboes and trumpets, one trombone, one tuba, plus percussion, piano and a speaker). Both wind instruments and piano have discords which brutalize liturgical-sounding melodies. The serene spoken text, dramatically delivered tonight by Evgeny Chebykin, is in extreme contrast to the dislocation of the music, perhaps suggesting a mystery that distorts reason. Symphony No. 3 - Jesu Messiah, Save Us! has similar orchestration. The speaker's cry for salvation stands out from the disonance of the orchestra in a more conventional dramatic way. Symphony No. 5 - Our Father!, for oboe, trumpet, tuba and violin, plus the plywood cube, has a more scattered texture, using the contrasting tones of the instruments in sequence, with special emphasis on a solo pedal note from the unmuted tuba.

Richard Dubugnon, a Royal Academy Composition Fellow and the composer of the other work on the program, is Swiss-French, but his Triptyque shares the religious themes of much of the Russian music in this festival. Dubugnon describes his work, for baritone and chamber orchestra, as a "Méloclip", something between a music-theatre piece and a video clip. A setting of three poems by the young Paris-based writer Stéphane Héaume, it evokes rather traditional baroque images of guilt before God, the crucifixion, temptation in the desert and a sense of persecution and loneliness. Dubugnon in a programme note suggests images that could form a video to complete the work, but the poetry itself is strikingly visual and the performance was quite effective. The composition somewhat recalled Gerald McBurney's Letter to Paradise, premiered at the Proms in 1998 -- McBurney is director of "Dreams and Reflections", perhaps suggesting some indirect Russian influence on Dubugnon.

"Dreams and Reflections" seems to be aimed mainly at academics and specialists, since many of its performances take place during the day. Tonight's concert shows that Ustvolskaya, while tougher in every way than Part, and less lyrical in her spirituality than Gubaidulina, has a place in mainstream programmes, probably just before the interval.

H.E. Elsom



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