Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) studied under Shostakovich but, as Art Lange points out in his liner notes, shows the strong influence of Cowell, early Cage and the more aggressive persona of Prokofiev though here, intriguingly enough, the primary source seems to be Satie's music from the Rosicrucian period, like the Ogives. But whereas Satie allowed his spare, heavy notes to hover in the air, surrounded by a mist through which one could visualize medieval monks slowly going through their rituals, Ustvolskaya's notes, also often single or rough clusters, are generally stark and forthright, casting aside the overtly spiritual for the workaday world. It's not for nothing that one critic referred to her as "the lady with the hammer".
And yet...within almost every hard-shell, battering assault, there are moments of respite that indeed recall that moonstruck Satie, the third movement of the first sonata making an almost overt reference to the "Gymnopedies", for example, as well as most of the second and the beginning of the third. But otherwise, that yin/yang between the hyperbolic and the delicate is pitched back and forth throughout, the former ultimately getting its way. This can make for music that's either fascinatingly obsessive or maddening depending on the listener's taste. The relentless pounding can summon forth images of mechanical armies on the move, surging over and through the countryside, pausing only occasionally for a drink from a stream. By the time the sixth sonata bludgeons its way over the landscape (the sonatas were written over about a 40-year period, from 1947 to 1988), the listener has likely been battered into submission and gratefully accepts whatever brief balm is to be had. Marianne Schroeder is the fine, forceful pianist.
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