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element has only withdrawn and permeates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:
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
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.