Under the surface – Ustvolskaya Chamber Works on ECM


Composer: Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)

Nationality: Russian

What did she write? Ustvolskaya wrote little published music, but her output still extends to five symphonies and a number of highly regarded chamber works.

Why isn’t she more popular? In general women classical composers have had an extremely raw deal over the centuries, but there are at least now a few contemporaries who are coming through to more prominent positions – among them Dame Judith Weir, now Master (Mistress!) of the Queen’s Music, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina. Ustvolskaya’s music is not perhaps as immediately as theirs, but she is arguably the most inventive and original.

What are the works on this new recording? Two works for violin and piano – the Sonata (1952) and Duet (1964) given characteristically sparse titles. They sandwich an earlier Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1949), recorded for the second time by ECM.

What is the music like? Challenging. Not in a bad way, you understand!

The Duet is a fascinating piece, because there are some moments where it feels like the violin and piano are in open combat. The piercing high notes from the violin are haunting initially, but at about two and a half minutes in this cuts to some music that I can only describe as bloodthirsty, with violin and piano locked in battle.

There is a greater sense of togetherness between the instruments in the Sonata, where once again Kopatchinskaja and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser play with fearsome intensity. This work is where the influence of teacher Shostakovich is at its keenest, with a five-note motif on the violin that becomes obsessive and disconcerting. There are however some lovely slower moments of deep thought, where the violin makes bird-like calls over the soft piano.

The Trio is another dramatic work, its sonorities reminiscent of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written for the same combination with cello. The music is especially effective when Ustvolskaya works the violin and clarinet together, effectively taking the bottom out of the music, while there is often a stronger sense of forward movement. Reto Bieri’s beautiful tone is notable in this performance.

What’s the verdict? If you’re willing to put the work in with Ustvolskaya’s music there are rewards to be had. She is a composer who seems never to waste a note, and although sometimes her writing is austere, it is packed with a deep-seated emotion.

Give this a try if you like… Shostakovich, Messiaen or Bartók

Spotify Playlist

An Ustvolskaya playlist is available on Spotify below, including the Trio and Violin Sonata detailed above, the highly regarded Octet and the Symphony no.5.

Finding the Romanian soul

Finding the soul of Romania – Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Polina Leschenko play Enescu’s remarkable third sonata with music by Mozart

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin) and Polina Leschenko (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 January 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 14 February

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

What’s the music?

Mozart – Sonata for Violin and Piano in B flat (1784, 20 minutes)

Georges Enescu – Violin Sonata no.3, ‘dans le caractère populaire roumain’ (‘in Romanian Folk Style’) (1926, 25 minutes)

What about the music?

Mozart wrote a mass of sonatas for piano and violin. The order of instruments is significant, because whereas now we tend to be used to the piano playing second fiddle – as it were! – to the violin, Mozart wrote for them the other way around. For this piece, the tale is that he didn’t even have a piano part ready for the first performance in Vienna, so had to make one up on the spot!

Just a week after our encounter with the remarkable Solo Cello Sonata of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, we experience an equivalent outpouring of national passion from his contemporary, the Romanian composer Georges Enescu. A formidable violinist as well as a conductor, Enescu wrote what is regarded as one of the most difficult pieces for the instrument in 1926, looking to explore the soul of his country’s music. He does so in music of an incredibly direct nature, treating the violin as a voice at times.

Performance verdict

The Mozart proves to be a delicate palette cleanser for the main course, where the two performers feel a lot more at home in a meaty and often stormy account of Enescu’s masterpiece. It may need several listens but this is a forward thinking piece of work that brings out some extraordinary colours from Kopatchinskaya’s violin. Leschenko is no slouch either! A red hot performance.

What should I listen out for?

Listen especially for these bits:


01:28 – the start of the piece. A polite musical language, calm and unaffecting. Kopatchinskaja uses very little vibrato here.

02:47 – Mozart moves from the slow section (marked by the Italian term Largo) to the fast (‘Allegro’). The music becomes more nimble

08:02 – The start of quite a lengthy but serene slow movement, with violin and piano imitating each other’s musical phrases.

14:42 – The beginning of the third movement, a sprightly number – where Kopatchinskaja’s outbursts suggest a bit of impatience!


22:22 – the mysterious and almost otherworldly start of the Enescu

26:40 – the sort of broad, highly expressive melody in which the Romanian composer specialises, with animated backing on the piano.

31:30 – Enescu employs harmonics on the violin to get a really unusual, glassy sound quality, the start of a passage with a kaleidoscope of colours that reaches its peak at 34:39 with some weird and wonderful squeaks from the instrument – before 35:30 features some incredibly robust double stopping (more than one note at once on the violin) and runs on the piano from Leschenko

40:00 – A strong set of quotations from Romanian sources, with brilliant ensemble from the two players.

43:00 – Vigorous plucking to add a percussive element to the music

47:00 – the lead up to the powerful end


The duo gave two encores to the performance:

Cage – Etude for Violin and Piano (from 49:23 to 53:03)

Fritz Kreisler – Syncopation for Violin and Piano (from 54:12 to 56:22)

Want to hear more?

Mozart – one of the great master’s five violin concertos, which provides a good number of tunes (K216)

Enescu – further explorations of his country’s heritage in the Romanian Rhapsody no.1