Arvo Pärt is the best-loved composer of our times. Galina Ustvolskaya is little known. Both wrote music with a strong spiritual content.
Born in 1919, Galina Ustvolskaya died in 2006, not particularly famous - by her own design, as this fiercely uncompromising composer refused to write music that might have made her more popular in the then Soviet Union. By her own admission, Ustvolskaya composed works that are "not religious but certainly spiritual, because I have given everything I had - my soul, my heart." She also stated that she only wrote music under divine inspiration.
Of Ustvolskaya's rather small body of work, much was performed at the most recent Eight Bridges in Cologne, including a piece that Bas Wiegers describes as "a blast of nightmare." In conversation with DW, the conductor gave a veritable blow-by-blow description of Ustvolskaya's Symphonic Poem No. 1, subtitled "The Hero's Exploit," calling it "a terrible struggle where an innocent, folk-like melody becomes an incredible nightmare. There's a moment of collapse when everybody in the orchestra is trying to play this melody. Then the solo trumpet goes crazy, playing it double time, which is basically impossible. And then: bang! The whole thing sort of collapses, and the beautiful, sad introductory melody comes back to a very different reality."
Arvo Pärt, born in 1935 and the most commercially successful serious music composer of our times, wrote a piece in 2002 for piano and orchestra inspired by "Marsyas," a sculpture by Anish Kapoor which Bas Wiegers describes as having "an outer-space, weird quality." Pärt, who was present at the rehearsals for this concert, told the musicians that to achieve that desired quality, their playing should convey the sense of "walking but not quite touching the floor."
Wiegers also pointed to something important that the audience doesn't see: excerpts from the liturgy in the score. Beneath the main themes, phrases in Cyrillic range from "Dies irae" (Day of Wrath) to "With eyes of compassion, O Lord, look upon my lowest state. For my life is gradually passing away, and there is no salvation for me from the works I have done." At this point, the orchestra is simply a reverberation of the piano part.
Symphonic poem No. 1 (1958)
Lamentate (2002) for piano and orchestra
Olga Scheps, piano
Estonian State Symphony Orchestra
Bas Wiegers, conductor
Recorded by West German Radio, Cologne (WDR) in Cologne Philharmonie on May 5, 2016