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Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
Sacred Songs
See end of review for track-listing
Kiev Chamber Choir/Mykola Hobdych
rec. St Michael’s Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine, 2008
Sung texts not included
ECM NEW SERIES 2279 [74:55]

The Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov may have come late to choral music, but this disc - the latest in ECM’s series devoted to the composer - brings together his a cappella pieces written in 2006 and 2007. Appropriately enough the magnificent Kiev Chamber Choir, who also featured in Sacred Works (ECM 2117), are recorded in the cathedral that forms part of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev. The building was destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s but was finally reconstructed in 1999.
As for the Kiev Chamber Choir, it was co-founded by conductor Mykola Hobdych just after the collapse of the Soviet Union; a quick look at their discography reveals a mix of familiar liturgical works - Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky - and a smattering of more modern choral pieces. They may not be as well known as some a cappella groups I’ve encountered from the Baltics and Scandinavia, but nothing quite prepared me for the seasoned loveliness of their sound. Hugely refined, darkly sonorous and lit from within as if by an ancient light, this choir imbues Silvestrov’s modern settings with a powerful sense of the vast and venerable.
True, this composer’s choral style is itself very traditional, and anyone familiar with the unaccompanied liturgical works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Grechaninov will know exactly what to expect. That said, Silvestrov adds to his warming cadences an occasional angularity - Come, Let Us Worship, for instance - not to mention solos that rise from the gloom as gentle pleas to heaven. The serene World of Peace is simple yet indescribably beautiful, and the engineers have captured the acoustic of this space to perfection. Voices are clear and warm, perspectives are ideal and there’s none of the cave-like echo one so often hears in recordings of this kind.
The best a cappella singing should sound positively orchestral in its weight and blend, and so it does in O Virgin Mother of God. The men lay down a rich and resonant base upon which the women so faithfully build. It’s both effective and affecting, while in Today You Release (Your Servant) tenor soloist Roman Puchko’s tender, beautifully rounded singing is just one of this CD’s unexpected delights. Ditto Ernest Biekirov’s rising vocal curlecues in Lord, My Heart Swells Not With Pride, in which the choir ends with a glorious, supplicatory cadence.
Some may be tempted to lower the lights and luxuriate in this all-enveloping sound, but paradoxical as it may seem repertoire of this nature - and singing of this calibre - demands active engagement on the listener’s part. Soporific ‘holy minimalism’ this music certainly is not, and the degree of invention here is simply astounding. O King of Heaven has an artless yet sustained loveliness, and the overburdened ear and weary heart will be soothed by Silvestrov’s treatment of these profound and deeply resonant texts. There’s a touch more heft in the first of the Two Psalms of David, and Puchko makes a welcome return in the second, a luminous setting of The Lord Is My Shepherd.
Whether or not you own up to faith of any description the transfiguring beauty of this disc will move you, and mightily so. Rarely have I surrendered so completely to unaccompanied choral singing as I did here; in that respect this CD belongs with Charles Bruffy, the Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale’s unforgettable - and remarkably idiomatic - rendition of Grechaninov’s Passion Week; that SACD was my top pick for 2007 (review). And just when it seems Silvestrov can’t possibly get any better the shawm-like sonorities of the Alleluia from the Two Spiritual Refrains takes one’s breath away. Hobdych’s control of choral blend and dynamic shifts is masterly, and he ensures the piece fades most gently into the waiting silence.
In the Two Spiritual Songs the Cherubic Hymn finds the women in bright raiment clad, yet in the corresponding work in the Three Spiritual Songs they are in more sober garb. Both songs are perfectly pitched - literally and metaphorically - but it’s the glorious Puchko in the penultimate track and Petro Biletskij in the final one who add a touch of deep-chested vocal magic to these settings.
This CD represents a perfect storm in that sublime music, first-rate singing and an exemplary recording conspire to create a very special disc indeed. That’s before one factors in good liner-notes by Paul Griffiths and packaging that exudes quality. Normally I’d grumble about the lack of sung texts, but that seems churlish in the presence of such all-pervading artistry.
Nourishing repertoire, ravishingly sung; a balm for the heart and soul.
Dan Morgan  

Songs For Vespers (2006)
1. Come, Let Us Worship [3:20]
2. World Of Peace [2:57]
3. Holy God [3:48]
4. O Virgin Mother Of God [3:12]
5. Today You Release (Your Servant) [3:57]
6. Many Years (Vivat) [3:17]
7. Silent Night [3:44]
Psalms And Prayers (2007)
8. Praise God All Ye Nations [2:11]
9. Lord, My Heart Swells Not With Pride [3:15]
10. Lord Jesus Christ [4:12]
11. Blessed Is He [2:57]
12. O King Of Heaven [2:40]
13. With The Saints Grant Eternal Peace [1:45]
14. Our Father [3:35]
Two Psalms of David (2007)
15. To You, O Lord, I Call [4:24]
16. The Lord Is My Shepherd [4:30]
Two Spiritual Refrains (2008)
17. Do Not Forsake Me [3:17]
18. Alleluia [3:14]
Two Spiritual Songs (2007)
19. Cherubic Hymn [3:17]
20. Many Years (Vivat) [2:29]
Three Spiritual Songs (2006)
21. Cherubic Hymn [3:57]
22. Many Years (Vivat) [2:06]
23. Alleluia [1:48]
Soloists: Denys Krutko (18), Ernest Biekirov (9. 17), Iryna Vasenko (23), Oleksander Biloshapka (10, 21), Olexander Bida (1), Petro Biletskij (3, 15, 23), Roman Pohodyna (4), Roman Puchko (5, 16, 22), Tetiana Havrylenko (2, 7, 13, 23), Victor Sachok (1)
Duet: Lillia Hrynova, Tetiana Havrylenko (18)