Batter my Heart
Royal Academy of Music
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)
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.