“There is a tradition in Russian culture,” Gramophone noted recently, “of the auto-didactic artistic genius whose work transcends the culture of his time – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Platonov being prime examples in literature, Mussorgsky in music. And this transcendental model is what Silvestrov’s contemporaries draw on when they describe his work.” The late Alfred Schnittke referred to Valentin Silvestrov (born Kiev, 1937) as “the greatest composer of our generation”, Arvo Pärt expressed similar sentiments in a recent New Yorker interview, and both in the Ukraine and across the former Soviet Bloc there can be few composers today who are held in comparable esteem by their peers. In the West, his reputation continues to spread.
Nonetheless, Silvestrov himself felt when writing his “Requiem for Larissa”, between 1997 and 1999 that it would be his last composition (in fact, four years would pass before he would begin another major work, the Seventh Symphony of 2003). The sudden death of his wife, musicologist and literary scholar Larissa Bondarenko, in a Kiev hospital in May 1996, had stunned the composer. Not only a champion of his music, Bondarenko had been an integral part of its evolution for more than 30 years, and the “Requiem” reflects on the life she and Silvestrov shared, the things they achieved together.
“Time in Valentin Silvestrov’s music is a black lake,” writes Paul Griffiths, in the liner notes to “Requiem for Larissa”. “The water barely moves; the past refuses to slide away; and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place. Nothing is lost here. A melody, which will rarely extend through more than five or six notes, will have each of those notes sounding on, sustained by other voices or instruments, creating a lasting aura. Elements of style, hovering free of their original contexts, can reappear from Webern, from Bruckner, from Mozart, from folksong. But yet everything is lost. Every melody, in immediately becoming echo, sounds like the reverberation of something that has already gone. Every feature of style speaks of things long over. Silvestrov’s creative destiny for many years has been the postlude: his works revive past music especially Romantic symphonic music in the very act of lamenting its disappearance.”
Or, as Silvestrov once famously put it, “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.” His poetic, “metaphorical” style of composing has alluded to the entire history of music (and other arts), viewing the past through the cracks in modernism, as one writer remarked.
Silvestrov's Requiem draws on the longstanding tradition of the Latin Mass for the Dead, but it uses the text almost entirely in fragmented or even shattered form. “During the two centuries and more since Mozart,” notes Griffiths, “the text has outgrown its original liturgical function to become an adaptable frame for human responses to death, responses of grief, anger, fear and hope in varying measures, ranging in tone from the grandly public to the intimately private, and differing too in presumed location, whether church or concert hall. Composers have edited the text accordingly. Silvestrov’s choice, though, is different: his is a Requiem in which words are not so much trimmed away as forgotten. Phrases are begun, then left adrift, as if the singers could not remember how to continue. Perhaps they are trying to avoid what must come next, undo the occasion in which they are participating. Perhaps they are too shocked to speak.”
“It is as if Silvestrov’s mind were constantly withdrawing into an interior space in order to find room for remembered images sheltered by music and uttered with its breath”, writes Tatjana Rexroth.
For all the tragic circumstances of its genesis, the “Requiem” contains some of Silvestrov’s most compelling and intimate music, “extraordinarily beautiful lissom music” as Gramophone called it last year.
Valentin Silvestrov studied piano at the Kiev Evening Music School (1955–58), and composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kiev from 1958 to 1964. Silvestrov was alert from the outset to new compositional approaches, and an individual lyricism and melodic feeling have been hallmarks of his work through all periods of his artistic development, irrespective of musical styles or systems employed. Together with Leonid Grabovsky, he counts as the leading figure of the “Kiev Avant-garde”, which by 1960 was experimenting with 12-tone and aleatoric music and music theatre, in contradistinction to the generally conservative mood of Ukrainian composition.
His early work was briefly heard outside the Soviet Union in the late 1960s: Bruno Maderna conducted Silvestrov’s Third Symphony in Darmstadt in 1968, and Boulez presented his work in one of the Domaine Musical concerts. By this point, however, Silvestrov was already distancing himself from dominant trends in modern music.
In 1969 Silvestrov re-evaluated the meaning of his music, as he examined the relationship between historical culture on the one hand and the magical, primitive and perpetual dimension of inspiration on the other. “This is where Silvestrov’s music takes a highly interesting and distinctive turn. It becomes impregnated with a slow expressive confidence and exhibits greatly prolonged melodic lines in a post romantic climate that is often reminiscent of Gustav Mahler” (Frans C. Lemaire).
Silvestrov was one of the first composers from the former Soviet Union to cast aside what might be called the “conventional” gestures of the avant-garde, as well as any sense of formulaic “experimentalism”. As he has perceptively noted, “the most important lesson of the avant-garde was to be free of all preconceived ideas – particularly those of the avant-garde.” This perspective led to the development of an idiom which Silvestrov would eventually come to call “metaphorical style” or “meta-music”.
”Requiem for Larissa” is Silvestrov’s third ECM release. It follows the Grammy-nominated “leggierio, pesante” album of chamber music with Anja Lechner, Silke Avenhaus, Simon Fordham and the Rosamunde Quartet (plus Silvestrov himself on piano on “Hymne 2001”) and the widely-acclaimed orchestral album “Metamusik/Postludium”, with Alexei Lubimov, Dennis Russell Davies and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, formerly the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1937 and has had a distinguished history, collaborating with composers including Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khatchaturian. Conductors who have led the orchestra include Nathan Rachlin, Stepan Turchak, Feodor Gluschenko and Igor Blazhkov.
The Dumka choir, another national institution (it was founded 80 years ago), has often performed music of Silvestrov. The choir has toured extensively and, over the two decades that Yevhen Savchuk has been its artistic director, has drawn praise both for its strong voices and for its adventurous repertoire.
Valentin Silvestrov, currently in Berlin, Germany on a stipend from the Belaieff Foundation, is composer-in-residence at a major festival of Ukrainian Culture, to be held in Basel, Switzerland, from October 4th to November 14.
Further New Series recordings of the music of Silvestrov are in preparation.
CD package includes 32-page four-language booklet with liner notes by Paul Griffiths and Tatjana Rexroth, the text of the requiem, poetry of Taras Schevchenko, and photographs.