It is hard to imagine a sharper contrast: On the one side, an outburst of violence and pain, an exclamation of protest and biting accusation; on the other, complete immersion into the music’s configurations, turning both composition and performance into ritual acts. No one could have composed in an earthier, more aggressive way than Shostakovich did in his Fourth Symphony, and yet, all its movements end quietly, morendo, dying away. His erstwhile student Galina Ustvolskaya follows the contemplations of a long-suffering monk and scholar from the Reichenau cloister as a guideline to find her tone. She draws the work’s characteristics from the act of prayer: a concentration on very few essential thoughts, an honesty that does not try to enhance the sound, and a relationship with time that will not be rushed.
When Valery Gergiev conducted the world premiere of Ustvolkaja’s Third Symphony in Amsterdam in 1995, the composer left her home town of Saint Petersburg for her first extended journey abroad, in order to be present at the premiere. At that occasion too, Gergiev combined Ustvolkaya’s Third with Shostakovich’s Fourth. Both composer and conductor were quite aware of the communicating vessels between these outwardly starkly contrasting pieces.