Since 2001, ECM has championed the art of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov with recordings of his orchestral, chamber and vocal works – creations that stand as some of the most arresting and moving in contemporary music. This continues in Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year with “Sacred Songs”, the seventh release ECM has devoted wholly to the composer’s music; it collects sets of songs composed from 2006 to 2008: “Songs for Vespers”, “Psalms and Prayers”, “Two Psalms of David”, “Two Spiritual Refrains”, “Two Spiritual Songs” and “Three Spiritual Songs”. These pieces reflect Silvestrov’s late-blooming interest in composing for a cappella voices, which has led to the ECM albums “Requiem for Larissa” (released in 2004) and “Sacred Works” (2010). Like “Sacred Works”, the new “Sacred Songs” features the idiomatically attuned, even otherworldly performances of Ukraine’s Kiev Chamber Choir under the direction of co-founder Mykola Hobdych, with the recordings made in the resounding air of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, an ancient building recently reconstructed, whose acoustic is almost a joint performer with the choir.
In his liner notes, Paul Griffiths sets the tone:
“Sacred Songs” – songs enunciating words from a church service, as all these do – place themselves in a fold in time, where a specific moment touches the ageless. The words come without date or authorship; they have been spoken and sung for so long that their origins have been effaced. They just are. They are as they always have been and as they always will be: Much of the Orthodox liturgy has survived in continuous use from long before the arrival of Christianity in Kiev more than a millennium ago, which makes this body of texts near timeless for such temporary beings as we are. How can music, music composed in the 21st century, not put a limit to that long resonance? Perhaps by sounding, new as it is, already like a memory.
Silvestrov’s sacred vocal music often evokes the pealing or clangour of bells, which echo through the centuries of Orthodox tradition he draws upon. Griffiths writes: “Bells in this culture are voices, sounded by their ‘tongues’, as clappers are still called in modern Ukrainian and Russian, laying the ground for music that has voices as bells. Through transparent screens of folk song and popular tune, even from back before the Word was heard in Kiev, we are hearing a deeply ancient thrum.”
The composer turned to choral composition relatively late in his career, after spending decades concentrating on piano and chamber music, as well as symphonic works. Silvestrov said: “Being an individualist, choirs were never my initial interest. The piano – there lies my fate.” In 1977, shortly after completing his “Silent Songs” (ECM 1898/99), he wrote an a cappella cantata based on verses by Taras Schewtschenko, but it took almost 20 years for the piece to receive its premiere. He eventually composed the large-scale “Requiem for Larissa” (ECM 1778), a work that Silvestrov has said was a way for mourning his wife’s early demise. It was Mykola Hobdych’s persistent encouragement that motivated Silvestrov to immerse himself more deeply in the choral world and to study ages-old Russian litanies.
Valentin Silvestrov was born in 1937, in Kiev. He studied piano at Kiev Evening Music School, then composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He was alert from the outset to new compositional approaches, and an individual lyricism has been a hallmark of his work through his career. Silvestrov was one of the first composers from the former Soviet Union to cast aside formulaic gestures of the later post-war avant-garde. He said, “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 that Silvestrov would come to call his “metaphorical style” or “meta-music.” Gramophone has written: “There is a tradition in Russian culture of the auto-didactic artist genius whose work transcends the culture of his time – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mussorgsky being prime examples. This transcendental model is what Silvestrov’s contemporaries draw on when they describe his work.” The late Alfred Schnittke called Silvestrov “the greatest composer of our generation.”
The Kiev Chamber Choir was founded in 1990 by its director, Mykola Hobdych, along with graduates from Ukrainian conservatories and universities. It has won various European choral competitions and participated in more than 20 international music festivals. The choir has toured extensively and recorded music for more than 30 CDs. Of its Silvestrov recording “Sacred Songs” (ECM 2117), the BBC said: “A ravishing collection of a cappella choral works by Silvestrov that perfectly illustrates his own description of his music as `a response to and an echo of what already exists.’ It is the sheer beauty of sound that catches the ear (...) luminous and lyrical.”