It may be an event which has largely passed under the Contemporary Music radar, but today is the 75th birthday of the great Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose work has been featured in a number of articles on this blog. Silvestrov may not be as well-known a name as other composers of his generation from the former Soviet Union such as Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) and Arvo Pärt (1935-), but he is the author of a huge and unique body of music, including works such as the Fifth Symphony (1980-82), the cycle of 24 Silent Songs (1974-77), the violin symphony Dedication (1990-91) or Requiem for Larissa (1997-99) which can be said to have become cult classics.
Silvestrov’s dream-like and sometimes frighteningly intimate, private world may not be to all tastes. Certainly listeners who are searching for easy gratification or facile effect will find little here. To those of us, however, who have fallen under its spell there are few composers active today whose music is as consistently mesmeric or emotionally rich. Not merely on account of the notes, which often have a studied anonymity to them, especially on the many occasions on which Silvestrov deliberately restricts himself to a pre-1900 harmonic vocabulary, but also and even perhaps primarily because of what lies between the notes. That which eludes rationalizing analysis, which can only be sensed intuitively. Silvestrov is arguably unparalleled in his attention to the mysterious, indefinable boundary between sound and silence, to minute fluctuations in mood and pulse whose painstaking notation makes his scores far denser than one might suspect on a first hearing. Although he playfully describes his series of limpid Bagatelles as ‘pet animals’ in comparison to the ‘tigers’ of his larger, more philosophical works, to perform even the simplest piano piece of Silvestrov with the requested attention to detail – subtle shading of tone, almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, pedalling as a quasi-autonomous musical parameter – can at times feel like an impossibly demanding task. One that has something of the feel of a metaphysical exercise (Silvestrov’s output for piano includes works with overtly sacred titles such as Sanctus, Benedictus or Hymn 2001 as well as the haunting, quasi-Mozartian The Messenger which doubles as the Agnus Dei of the Requiem). A contemplative attitude is a pre-requisite on the part of the player, who finds herself not so much performing a ‘piece of music’ as meditating on the nature of Music in a supra-personal sense; the composer regards himself not as a creator bringing something into being but rather as the channel through which a pre-existing universal Music flows. Each new work merely continues where other composers of the past (Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky …) have left off, offering one more expression of ‘the song of the world about itself’.
In recent years, Silvestrov’s catalogue has been unexpectedly expanded by a remarkable series of choral works on liturgical texts written for the Kiev Chamber Choir under their director Mykola Hobdych. A first group of these were released by ECM in 2009 on the critically acclaimed CD Sacred Choral Works , including the unearthly Litany and a Diptych which can also be found on a Latvian Radio Choir recording for the GB label of Gavin Bryars, who described it is ‘the most beautiful music I had ever heard’ when he came across the piece without knowing the identity of its author in 2003. In conjunction with Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year, ECM will next month be releasing a second album of Silvestrov’s works for choir dating from 2006-2008 which may not become 2012 ‘s best-selling release but will certainly be on my wishlist.
Although the ECM New Series recordings of Valentin Silvestrov’s music (together with Gidon Kremer’s compelling performance of Dedication with the Munich Philharmonic on TELDEC) probably constitute the best introduction to his catalogue, there is also a fair amount of stimulating live concert footage available on the internet. Silvestrov’s inimitable quasi-improvisatory piano playing can for example be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gdgEFTvFzE , while he can be seen rehearsing his recent String Quartet n.3 with the Kronos Quartet at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16758798 . His contribution to Schott Music’s multi-composer ‘Petrushka Project’ can be heard online at http://www.petrushka-project.com/works/composers/show,20856.html For serious devotees, a dense but richly rewarding book of interviews ‘To Wait for Music’ (in Russian), accompanied by a DVD-ROM with most of Silvestrov’s works and unique home-recorded piano sketches can be ordered from the Ukrainian publishers Duh i Litera http://duh-i-litera.com