In mid-March of this year, I attended a concert by the pianist Boris Giltburg. Came the time to announce his encore: a lovely Bagatelle by the great if sadly too-little known Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, who at the age of 84 had just a week earlier been whisked out of his homeland and taken, via Poland, to Berlin. Giltburg’s tribute would be one of many unexpected performances of Silvestrov’s work following the Russian invasion of his country; he is, after all, the best-known living Ukrainian composer. That said, how terribly ironic that it took such appalling developments to raise public awareness of his music!
Silvestrov is a fascinating, distinctive, very rewarding artist – I wrote about him here five years ago – but he has not until now been noticeably ‘political’. That said, a new release of his music clearly has contemporary significance and relevance, even if the four pieces on the album date from before the invasion. Maidan, performed by the Kyiv Chamber Choir under Mykola Hobdych, begins with the ‘Cycle of cycles’ Maidan 2014, a piece for a cappella choir written in prompt response to the gathering in Kyiv that had taken place that year to protest against the Russophile government’s reluctance to sign an agreement with the EU. Each of the cycle’s four parts starts with an arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem, which is then followed by settings of traditional liturgical texts and poems by Taras Shevchenko. The nineteenth-century poet – a champion of independence regarded as the father of modern Ukrainian language and literature – is also the source for most of the texts of three further cycles on the disc – Four Songs, Diptych and Triptych – all composed by Silvestrov in the two years following that Euromaidan protest.
Where some of Silvestrov’s music – particularly the symphonies – has tended at times towards the tempestuous, much of the choral work here is more in keeping with his chamber music, in that it displays the gentler, quieter side of his palette. This, as the composer has explained, is entirely intentional: ‘It’s no accident that the symbolic crown and ending of the Maidan 2014 cycle is a quiet lullaby. For I’m neither able nor willing to duplicate the noise of this terrible war. Instead, I want to show how fragile our civilisation is.’ Hence the solemn, poignant delicacy of the settings, the choir’s harmonic excellence and heartfelt sincerity given added resonance by having been recorded in St Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv.
‘Valentin Silvestrov – Maidan‘ is now available on ECM. Portrait photo of Silvestrov by the late Roberto Masotti, courtesy ECM.