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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A Tale of Two Women

By Norman Lebrecht / January 3, 2007

The two leading women of Russian music are disarmingly similar at first sight. Sofia Gubaidulina, 75, whose work is being rolled out at the Barbican in a BBC composer weekend (Jan 12-14), writes slow orchestral music rich in religious symbolism. Galina Ustvolskaya, who died just before Christmas aged 87, called her third symphony ‘Jesus, Messiah, Save Us!’ and her fifth ‘Amen!’

There, however, comparison ends. Gubaidulina moved after the Soviet era to Germany and won international recognition. Ustvolskaya, seldom left her home in St Petersburg or gave an interview, slamming her front door once in the face of a TV documentary crew. Her music, deceptively simple, verges on the minimalist until the melody turns disquietingly abrasive.

She was Shostakovich’s pupil between 1937 and 1947 and his lover for some years after. He quotes a theme of hers in his fifth string quartet and again in one of his last works. He asked her to marry him when his wife died in 1954; she refused. He referred to her as his ‘musical conscience’. She said: ‘he burdened my life and killed my best feelings.’ Quite what went on between them may never be known.

What we do know is that her work is important and disturbing, both intrinsically and in its influence on the greatest composer of her time. Unlike Gubaidulina, who is courted by the musical establishment, Ustvolskaya drove away admirers and denounced commentaries on her work. Chances to hear it are scarce. It would be fitting if someone, at the BBC’s Gubaidulina weekend, inserted a brief musical tribute to the reclusive, eccentric, restlessly original Galina Ustvolskaya.



Viva L’Opera Roberto Alagna (DG) *

A neat twist of fate has brought out a 2-CD retrospective of the French-Sicilian tenor a mere fortnight after he walked out of La Scala’s Aida, jeopardising what remains of a rocky career. Recruited in a Paris pizza parlour, Alagna shot to celebrity as partner to the Rumanian diva Angela Gheorghiu. Their set-pieces here, from Trovatore and Boheme, sound less convincing than they are on stage and Alagna, singing solo, can be very tiresome. The voice is stressed on the opening track, the top notes in La Donna e mobile almost shouted. He is better in French than Italian, meltingly so in the heartbreak arias of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and Halevy’s La Juive. But his attack on the Berlioz arrangement of the French national anthem is both rough, cheap and ugly: a football crowd does it better. NL

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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