Recorded February 2001 in Kiev, Ukraine
Yevhen Savchuk choirmaster
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
Volodymyr Sirenko conductor
Valentin Silvestrov conductor
"There is a tradition in Russian culture," Gramophone noted recently, "of the auto-didactic artistic genius whose work transcends the culture of his time - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Platonov being prime examples in literature, Mussorgsky in music. And this transcendental model is what Silvestrov's contemporaries draw on when they describe his work." The late Alfred Schnittke referred to Valentin Silvestrov (born Kiev, 1937) as "the greatest composer of our generation", Arvo Part expressed similar sentiments in a recent New Yorker interview, and both in the Ukraine and across the former Soviet Bloc there can be few composers today who are held in comparable esteem by their peers. In the West, his reputation continues to spread.
Nonetheless, Silvestrov himself felt when writing his "Requiem for Larissa", between 1997 and 1999 that it would be his last composition (in fact, four years would pass before he would begin another major work, the Seventh Symphony of 2003). The sudden death of his wife, musicologist and literary scholar Larissa Bondarenko, in a Kiev hospital in May 1996, had stunned the composer. Not only a champion of his music, Bondarenko had been an integral part of its evolution for more than 30 years, and the "Requiem" reflects on the life she and Silvestrov shared, the things they achieved together.
"Time in Valentin Silvestrov's music is a black lake," writes Paul Griffiths, in the liner notes to "Requiem for Larissa". "The water barely moves; the past refuses to slide away; and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place. Nothing is lost here. A melody, which will rarely extend through more than five or six notes, will have each of those notes sounding on, sustained by other voices or instruments, creating a lasting aura. Elements of style, hovering free of their original contexts, can reappear from Webern, from Bruckner, from Mozart, from folksong. But yet everything is lost. Every melody, in immediately becoming echo, sounds like the reverberation of something that has already gone. Every feature of style speaks of things long over. Silvestrov's creative destiny for many years has been the postlude: his works revive past music especially Romantic symphonic music in the very act of lamenting its disappearance."
Or, as Silvestrov once famously put it, "I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists." His poetic, "metaphorical" style of composing has alluded to the entire history of music (and other arts), viewing the past through the cracks in modernism, as one writer remarked.
Silvestrov's Requiem draws on the longstanding tradition of the Latin Mass for the Dead, but it uses the text almost entirely in fragmented or even shattered form. "During the two centuries and more since Mozart," notes Griffiths, "the text has outgrown its original liturgical function to become an adaptable frame for human responses to death, responses of grief, anger, fear and hope in varying measures, ranging in tone from the grandly public to the intimately private, and differing too in presumed location, whether church or concert hall. Composers have edited the text accordingly. Silvestrov's choice, though, is different: his is a Requiem in which words are not so much trimmed away as forgotten. Phrases are begun, then left adrift, as if the singers could not remember how to continue. Perhaps they are trying to avoid what must come next, undo the occasion in which they are participating. Perhaps they are too shocked to speak."
"It is as if Silvestrov's mind were constantly withdrawing into an interior space in order to find room for remembered images sheltered by music and uttered with its breath", writes Tatjana Rexroth.
For all the tragic circumstances of its genesis, the "Requiem" contains some of Silvestrov's most compelling and intimate music, "extraordinarily beautiful lissom music" as Gramophone called it last year.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, formerly the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1937 and has had a distinguished history, collaborating with composers including Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khatchaturian. Conductors who have led the orchestra include Nathan Rachlin, Stepan Turchak, Feodor Gluschenko and Igor Blazhkov.
The Dumka choir, another national institution (it was founded 80 years ago), has often performed music of Silvestrov. The choir has toured extensively and, over the two decades that Yevhen Savchuk has been its artistic director, has drawn praise both for its strong voices and for its adventurous repertoire.
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Time in Valentin Silvestrov's music is a black lake. The water barely moves; the past refuses to slide away; and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place.
Nothing is lost here. A melody, which will rarely extend through more than five or six notes, will have each of those notes sounding on, sustained by other voices or instruments, creating a lasting aura. Elements of style, hovering free of their original contexts, can reappear from Webern, from Bruckner, from Mozart, from folksong.
But yet everything is lost. Every melody, in immediately becoming echo, sounds like the reverberation of something that has already gone. Every feature of style speaks of things long over.
Silvestrov's creative destiny for many years has been the postlude: his works revive past music, especially Romantic symphonic music, in the very act of lamenting its disappearance. A Requiem might therefore have seemed an artistic inevitability. What could not be expected was the work's terrible circumstance.
In 1996 his wife, the musicologist Larissa Bondarenko, died suddenly in hospital in their home city of Kiev. She had been his mainstay. The following year he began this Requiem to her memory, feeling that it was his last work, and scoring it for a choir having a basso profundo section, with soprano, contralto and tenor soloists occasionally emerging from within the general body of voices, supported by a Beethoven-scale orchestra plus synthesizer. He duly reflected on everything he had achieved everything he and his wife had achieved together going back to his First Symphony (1963), recalled in the "Tuba mirum", and coming forward to the last of his works she lived to hear: the piano piece The Messenger (Der Bote), which he arranged entire in the "Agnus Dei". After finishing the score, in 1999, he wrote only minor pieces until 2003, when he returned to large-scale composition with his Seventh Symphony.
As a setting of the Latin mass for the dead his work belongs in a venerable tradition. During the two centuries and more since Mozart the text has outgrown its original liturgical function to become an adaptable frame for human responses to death responses of grief, anger, fear and hope in varying measures, ranging in tone from the grandly public to the intimately private, and differing too in presumed location, whether church or concert hall. Composers have edited the text accordingly. Silvestrov's choice, though, is different: his is a Requiem in which words are not so much trimmed away as forgotten. Phrases are begun, then left adrift, as if the singers could not remember how to continue. Perhaps they are trying to avoid what must come next, undo the occasion in which they are participating. Perhaps they are too shocked to speak.
The words they cannot quite get out at first are those of the introit. Into imagery of tolling bells (E in deep bass octaves sounded by piano, harp, tam tam and low strings) with a slow, faltering horn melody, women's voices bring the initial word: it is "Requiem", given the striking gesture of a falling minor ninth followed by a rising sixth. (Minor ninths and major sevenths often recur, an inheritance from Webern in music very different from his in harmony and size.) Men's voices enter as the gesture is repeated in altered form, its intervals squashed and the rise now made through a scale, introducing the prolongation of melodic notes into growing chords. The resulting haze clears for the work's first glowing triad. A fast middle section of this first movement briefly recalls the start of the alarming hymn "Dies irae, dies illa".
Then the earlier mood returns, but only briefly before new low bell tones, now with piano, synthesizer and tam tam to the fore, introduce the second movement. The effect is of thunder and later there is lightning in quick figures from violins and woodwind leaping up and down. But the sound picture equally fits the fearful blast of the last trump promised in the opening words. Time is now indeed stilled. The singers come up with phrases from both earlier and later in the Requiem text, while the movement takes the form of a sequence of echoes, the blast slowly dying away. When it has almost vanished, and the voices have gone, the synthesizer, backed by violins, finds angel music on the edge of kitsch. Finally, slow cadences float down through the strings like a blessing.
The third movement begins with something new: the text is continuous (it is the "Lacrimosa" that ends the "Dies irae", a section often set as a separate, calmative movement) and so is the texture, the solo contralto singing to a chordal accompaniment while her phrases are doubled by strings with alto flute or cur angles. But the music remains out of joint. The phrases do not sound consecutive: it seems either that something is missing or that the musical fabric has been broken and not quite correctly reassembled. The harmony, too, moves blindly from one chord to another, and when at last a point of repose arrives towards the end of the solo, an E major chord, it is no resolution, no way out of the labyrinth. Immediately the text is repeated by all the men of the choir, beginning on the same note, E, from which the basso profundo line descends in chant as the tenors rise in a slow march. This sequence is repeated with the women singers in wailing minor thirds, then the march is repeated again on trombones under a development of the women's music. Finally, the solo tenor sings a reprise of the contralto solo, the "thunder and lightning" music of the previous movement echoes in again, and the end comes with an open cadence on harp and piano: a C# followed by the fifth D-A, apparently signing the movement with the name "Larissa" (la-re-cis, in a combination of Romance and German note names).
In the fourth movement the liturgy is left behind for a farewell to the world by Taras Shevchenko, the 19th-century Ukrainian national poet. Here Silvestrov adapts the setting for voice and piano he made in his Silent Songs (1974/77), giving his folksong-like melody to the tenor soloist with accompaniment for humming chorus and harp. In the second stanza, at a barely perceptible pianissimo, the soprano soloist sings along with the tenor: a shadowy, almost vanished female voice.
After this comes the second arrangement, the "Agnus Dei", laid out for choir, stringsand piano, with wind sounds on the synthesizer. Figures characteristic of Mozart, but not identifiably borrowed from any particular works, are delicately strung together, with evocations of violin concerto, sacred piece, aria and piano concerto. Again at the end comes the "Larissa" sign-off.
What follows is postlude upon postlude. The sixth movement is a varied reprise of the opening section of the first, the seventh an almost entirely orchestral piece reminiscing on the" thunder and lightning" music, the angel chimes with their consoling continuation, and the wind. With this comes a last breath from the choir.