Following the chamber music album “leggiero, pesante”, the orchestral “Metamusik/Postludium”, and the “Requiem for Larissa”, ECM New Series is very pleased to present a most remarkable recording of Valentin Silvestrov’s “Stille Lieder”, a song cycle of great importance in the development and perception of the Ukrainian composer’s work, in a double album that also includes his “Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam”.
“We may feel we have always known these songs,” writes Paul Griffiths in the liner notes to the “Silent Songs”, “and in a sense we have. The first hearing will not seem the first, though we will remember it for that slow shock of familiarity, how it awakens memories…Yet though we may feel we have always known these songs, we have not. They are new – startlingly new for 1974-77, when composers in the Soviet Union were stretching boundaries…Just when composers could at last make big personal statement in public, here was one letting the past express itself, in the private dimensions of whispered song”.
Though the slowly unfurling, quiet music of these “Stille Lieder” for baritone and piano, inspired by Russian and English poetry was widely considered a departure from Silvestrov’s more overtly “experimental” work, Silvestrov himself remains adamant that the cycle represented neither a change of direction nor a change of heart. The music’s radicalism was merely internalised: “There was more of a transition than a stylistic breech”, he told Tatjana Frumkis. “The avant-garde element has only withdrawn and permeates the entire music like a pinch of salt. The technical and compositional devices work subversively, in a realm of the invisible and inaudible.”
Indeed, these apparently simple songs proved extraordinarily demanding to perform, and it was not until 1985 that the cycle was presented in its entirety, by the great singer Sergey Yakovenko, accompanied by the young pianist Ilya Scheps:
“After looking through the vocal score, I couldn’t get the music out of my head,” Yakovenko recalls. “The work seemed so unique to me that I had to forget all my previous experience and to begin my search for a form of musical interpretation afresh, with something like a tabula rasa.” Ilya Scheps illuminates its specific challenges: “For two hours of very quiet music, the singer and pianist have not only to capture the attention of the audience, but to lend expression to the incredible tension of the music - the electrifying contrasts between the very delicate and inwardly trembling and the eruptively explosive episodes of this invariably quiet work.”
Singer Sergey Yakovenko and pianist Scheps met this challenge with extraordinary resourcefulness, as this original recording of the work reveals. Made in Moscow in 1986 with the participation of Silvestrov and subsequently edited by him, the recording is previously unreleased. There have since been other recorded interpretations of the “Silent Songs” but these premiere recordings remain unsurpassed. The sensitivity of the recording itself reflects the sensitivity of the music.
In this period, Ilya Sheps was just embarking on his life as a performing musician, while Yakovenko, his commitment to contemporary music unique amongst singers in the Soviet Union, had long commanded widespread respect. Yakovenko had collaborated closely with Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denison, as well as with Silvestrov. In tribute to his achievement in performances of the “Silent Songs”, Silvestrov subsequently dedicated his “Four Songs After Osip Mandelstam” to the singer, and serves as Yakovenko’s accompanist in the current recording of this work.
Valentin Silvestrov is acknowledged by his fellow composers as an artist of unique expressive power. Alfred Schnittke called him “the greatest composer of our generation”, a sentiment seconded by Arvo Pärt in the New Yorker recently: “Silvestrov is one of the greatest composers of our time”.
Born in 1937 in the Ukraine, 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 his “metaphorical style” or “meta-music”.
“Silent Songs” is being released in time for the major festival, with Silvestrov’s music at its centre, held in Basel, Switzerland, from October 17th to November 15th 2004. The festival, headlined Culturescapes, spotlights Ukrainian themes - with concerts, symposiums, readings, exhibitions and films.
Many ensembles and soloists will be performing Silvestrov’s music, amongst them Alexei Lubimov, the Rosamunde Quartet, and Christoph Poppen with the Basel Chamber Orchestra.
Full details can be obtained from www.pass-basel.ch and www.culturescapes.ch
This 2-CD set is published by ECM in two editions, an international edition titled “Silent Songs” and a limited edition with booklet primarily in German, titled “Stille Lieder”. The international edition includes texts by Paul Griffiths and Ilya Scheps (in English), and by Tatjana Frumkis (in French), plus complete song texts in Russian and English, and archive photos from Silvestrov’s private collection. The limited edition includes texts by Ilya Scheps and Tatjana Frumkis (in German), and by Paul Griffiths (in English), plus complete song texts in Russian and German, and archive photos.