The Sound of Distant Memories: Valentin Silvestrov

Of the many fascinating composers who began their careers under the artistically reactionary regime of the Soviet Union and later found fame in the West – besides the obvious example of Arvo Pärt, I’m thinking of figures like Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Tigran Mansurian, Alfred Schnittke and Galina Ustvolskaya – one of the most distinctive is Valentin Silvestrov (portrait above by Roberto Masotti). Born in Kyiv in 1937, Silvestrov – like many of his contemporaries – started out as a modernist, intrigued and to some degree influenced by those experimental twentieth-century European composers of whom the Soviet authorities heartily disapproved. (Listening to some of the Ukrainian’s early music, I suspect Webern’s work may have gone down as well with Silvestrov as it did with Gubaidulina.) Then, in the 70s, much like Pärt, Silvestrov underwent something of a change of heart; his music became more accessible, more tonal, and more immediately recognisable as his and his alone. Whatever he’s writing for – solo piano, choir, a chamber duo, trio or quartet, or a full-blown symphony orchestra – Silvestrov’s music, once heard, is usually easily identifiable, so particular are its characteristics. Try this short piece, played by Gidon Kremer and Vadim Sacharov.

The first piece I ever heard by Silvestrov was his Fifth Symphony, on a CD given me by a friend (the film critic Trevor Johnston, actually). The piece begins with a thunderous chord – but while sizeable chunks of the music crash or rumble dramatically, what’s notable about the Fifth, despite the impression it gives of vast scale, is its unexpected delicacy; it’s as if that opening chord was the sound of a massive boulder being dropped into a lake, and what we hear, for the following three quarters of an hour, are the resultant waves and ripples, some unsettling, others shimmeringly beautiful. Sounding as if it is assembled from musical shards reminiscent of the work of earlier composers – think Mahler and Chopin as well as several nineteenth-century Russians – the piece ebbs and flows, surges and subsides, pauses, echoes and finally fades – but never quite into oblivion. Silvestrov’s music – lyrical, melodic, even quietly lush at times, yet somehow hard to pin down – feels like something half-remembered, as if you may have heard it long ago, albeit played not particularly loudly and in another room.

2389 XFor Silvestrov generally tends towards the gentle, the tentative, the poignant and the melancholy. That’s very clearly the case in a new selection of pieces for cello entitled ‘Hieroglyphen der Nacht’. All the works included on the CD are either for solo cello or for two cellos – though in the latter instances, it’s sometimes hard to tell that there are in fact two instruments, so harmonious is the writing. The solo performances are by the talented and very versatile German Anja Lechner (who first played Silvestrov’s music on 2002’s ‘Leggiero, Pesante’ – a lovely collection of chamber works, including the First String Quartet and  ‘Postludium  DSCH’, dedicated to Shostakovich), while on the other pieces Lechner is joined by Agnès Vesterman, an equally fine French cellist hitherto notable for her collaborations with the violist and composer Garth Knox.

An album wholly devoted to Silvestrov’s works for unaccompanied cello – though to be strictly accurate, on one piece Lechner also plays tam-tams with her bow – might sound a touch monotonous, but the music is actually surprisingly varied. It may alternate between, or combine, pizzicato and bowed playing; a cello may swoop, soar, sigh or cough. Some of the music is achingly melodic, some of it more austere or abstract; it may be fast or slow, agitated or becalmed, singing or skittering, percussive or pensive. Sometimes, a mood will be sustained for an entire piece; in other works, a mood may last a fleeting moment, only to be replaced by another. Even then, however, everything coheres, the fragmented motifs falling apart and pulling themselves back together as the music proceeds. And the title (taken from the first movement of ‘Drei Stücke’) is perhaps a little misleading; for me, at any rate, the music, overall, feels less nocturnal than crepuscular, caught between night and day; between longing and restraint; between wakefulness, reverie and remembrance. You can see Lechner and Vesterman playing some of the pieces here, though given the recording they obviously sound better on the CD. But there is a bonus in the clip in that you later get to see Silvestrov himself perform at the piano.

You may have heard Silvestrov’s work without realising; his music turns up in several Godard movies (perhaps unsurprisingly, given JLG’s own penchant for fragmentation and allusion), and it was used by François Ozon to very expressive effect in Time to Leave. Whatever, his work is well worth trying out. He’s often been described in terms of post-modernism and neo-romanticism, while his own pronouncements have attempted to clarify his frequent use of ‘postludium’ and the prefix ‘meta-‘. But it really doesn’t matter which words are used, since the music speaks so well for itself. There are around a dozen or so albums exclusively devoted to his work currently available, many of them on ECM; the label’s famously meticulous attention to sound quality serves Silvestrov especially well, though it’s also worth checking out an Apex disc of Gidon Kremer performing ‘Dedication: Symphony for violin and orchestra’ and the aforementioned Sony disc of Silvestrov’s Fifth. The best place to start? A very tough call, but I’d probably opt for the Sixth Symphony. (Again, the live recording here means that it is inferior in quality to the CD version. And the inappropriate illustration is not of my doing!)

‘Hieroglyphen der Nacht’ is now available on ECM. The recording of the Fifth Symphony mentioned above was released by Sony.

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