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Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
Silent Songs: A Cycle in Four Parts for Baritone and Piano (1974-77) [1:46’51"]
Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam for Baritone and Piano (1982) [13’16"]
* Sergey Yakovenko (baritone) Ilya Scheps (piano) Valentin Silvestrov (piano on Four Songs)
Recording 1986 in Moscow ADD
ECM NEW SERIES 9821424[60:00 + 59:19]

This is not quite the Silvestrov I expected. My experience with his marvelous Fifth Symphony (expertly conducted by David Robertson on Sony, and now out of print I believe) as well as a handful of chamber works did not prepare me for the simple plaintiveness of this project. This work was created in the mid-1970s, when other composers in the region such as Gubaidulina and Schnittke were redefining music in bracing, eyebrow-raising ways. Silvestrov’s cycle seems almost like a throwback at first hearing. In the composer’s own words about these songs, "The avant-garde element has only withdrawn and permeates the entire music like a pinch of salt. The technical and compositional devices work subversively, in a realm of the invisible and inaudible."

In the excellent notes by Paul Griffiths, he explains that Silvestrov was aiming for a timeless quality, a feeling that the listener has heard these songs before, that the listener "has always known these songs". The entire set of songs is slow, meditative, reflective. The music sounds simply constructed, with the vocalist and pianist given equally transparent parts. The first five use texts by Yevgeny Baratynsky, John Keats, Alexander Pushkin and Taras Schevchenko. The next eleven are after poems by Pushkin, Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Tyutchev, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Sergey Yesenin, and then the third set of three offers more texts by Lermontov. The final five use poems by Pushkin, Tyutchev, Mandelstam and Vasily Zhukovsky. As a sample, here is the twenty-fourth, and final poem by Zhukofsky:

Those sweet companions, thanks to whom

Our time here can be called a life –

Say not, in sorrow. They are not.

But say in gratitude: They were.

The composer’s instructions indicate that the artist should sing at a very soft level – mostly pppp – and Yakovenko is as faithful to these guidelines as possible, singing with great tenderness, almost as if he is whispering in one’s ear, and Scheps plays with great sensitivity throughout. (The composer takes the piano during the last Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam for Baritone and Piano.)

While I admire this project, some of the songs, while tender and with interesting texts, nevertheless come off as just a bit on the undercharacterized side. I think this may be due to the composer, rather than the interpreters. The ultra-calm surface eventually made me crave just a little more stimulation, and the sustained dynamic level somehow grows wearing; I ultimately wanted the singer to scream and howl a bit, just to vary the coloring somewhat. And the complete cycle, at almost two hours, has a certain monochromatic quality. That said, a fair question might be: So how does this differ from Morton Feldman’s equally quiet, yet somehow more mesmerizing studies, also sustained over a long period of time? I can’t answer. A different psyche may find Silvestrov’s gentle hand here ineffably beautiful.

Further, those with a general aversion to some of the harsher examples of contemporary expression might respond to the quiet, non-abrasive qualities of this cycle. If nothing else, this work demonstrates that yet another voice was writing in a style that has very little in common with some of the more "fearsome" atonal composers of the same time. The booklet is excellent, with the complete texts to all the poems. The sound quality has all the hallmarks of ECM’s typically clear projects, with some slightly close miking a complete asset to Silvestrov’s unusually intimate voice.

Bruce Hodges

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