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Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
Requiem for Larissa (1997/9)
National Choir of Ukraine "Dumka"
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Volodymyr Sirenko
Recorded: Kiev, Ukraine, 2001
ECM New Series 1778 (472 112-2) [52:32] .

Silvestrov’s wife, the musicologist Larissa Bondarenko, died in 1996. The following year he began a Requiem to her memory, feeling that this might be his last work. Indeed, he composed little of importance after completing his large-scale setting. Recently, however, he has turned to serious composition again, and is now busy completing his Seventh Symphony.

Requiem for Larissa is scored for mixed chorus and standard orchestral forces including a piano and a synthesiser. At various moments in the course of the piece, soloists emerge from the chorus. It sets parts of the traditional Latin Requiem mass, also incorporating a poem by the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Requiem settings were no rare thing during the Soviet era, although all of them, such as that by Kabalevsky, were written to non-liturgical texts. Requiem settings to the Latin words were much rarer, since the Soviet regime condemned such works. Some Russian composers nevertheless composed Requiem settings to the traditional Latin words, albeit in parts. The earliest of them is Denisov’s Requiem completed in 1980 and partly based on the liturgical text, while including texts from other sources as well. Other settings were later composed by Schnittke and Artyomov.

Silvestrov’s large-scale setting does not strictly set the words of the Latin Requiem mass either. So, the first section sets only parts of Requiem aeternam (sometimes some isolated words from it). Its central section anticipates the cataclysmic vision of the Dies irae. Similarly, the second section opening with massive, ominous fanfares (Tuba mirum) also includes a brief setting of the Kyrie as well as parts of the Sanctus and of the Agnus Dei. The global impact of the first two sections of Requiem for Larissa is that of profound moral and psychological disarray and of a disquieting sense of loss. The third section, however, is an almost straight setting of the Lacrimosa section (sung first by a contralto, then by men’s voices, later by women’s voices and finally by a solo tenor). It ends with a short cadence for harp and piano spelling a three-note motif based on Larissa’s name. In the fourth section (Largo), Silvestrov re-works one of his Silent Songs (on Shevchenko’s poem) for tenor, humming chorus and harp. This nostalgic folk-like setting of searing beauty is deeply moving for all its apparent simplicity. Silvestrov’s piano piece The Messenger is the last work of his that Larissa lived to hear. So the fifth section (Agnus Dei) is an arrangement of that piano piece for chorus, strings and piano, with wind sounds on the synthesiser. This is the most puzzling section of the entire Requiem; for one does not know what to do with its numerous Mozart allusions (Silvestrov, however, does not seem to quote any particular works by Mozart). The only thing one may be sure of is that this is neither parody nor pastiche. One is thus left speculating about its possible meaning. The sixth and seventh sections may be experienced as postludes; one knows that Silvestrov is obsessed by postludes and wrote several works with that title. The sixth section, actually a varied and shortened restatement of the opening of the work, is followed by a long orchestral coda (the seventh and last section) in which the chorus has the brief last word Requiem aeternam. The work ends in the void, with a few breathing sounds on the synthesiser.

Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa is his most beautiful and deeply felt piece to date. Rarely have I heard such poignant grief expressed with such sincerity, honesty and, most importantly, restraint, only briefly disrupted by bursts of pain and anger. This is a major work, and all concerned play and sing with dedication and commitment. They are well served by a very fine recorded sound. This superb release deserves the warmest recommendation and is one of the finest discs I have heard recently.

Hubert Culot



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