Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Monodia for piano and symphony orchestra (1965) [20:34]
Symphony No. 4 for strings and brass (1976) [28:14]
Postludium - Symphonic Poem for piano and orchestra (1984) [17:37]
Ivan Sokolov (piano)
Ural Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrej Borejko
rec. 1992, Yekaterinburg Philharmonia
MEGADISC MDC7837 [66:25]

Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Symphony No. 5 (1980-82) [45.49]
Exegi Monumentum (1985-87) [22.16]*
Sergej Jakovenko (baritone)*
Ural Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrej Borejko
rec. 1992, Yekaterinburg Philharmonia
MEGADISC MDC7836 [68.10]

I’m pleased to make the acquaintance of these two volumes of orchestral works by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Taped back in 1992, they were first issued several years ago, when they were reviewed by Rob Barnett. Megadisc, the Belgian record label, has just re-released them.

After some early musical education in his home city of Kiev, Silvestrov embarked on a course at the Institute of Construction Engineering also in Kiev during 1955–58. Realizing that music was to be his life, he changed direction and, from 1958 to 1964, studied composition with Boris Lyatoshinsky (review ~ review) and counterpoint and harmony with Levko Revutsky at the P. I. Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine. His compositional oeuvre consists of mostly orchestral, chamber, vocal and piano works.

The two symphonies form the core of this collection, with no. 5 considered by many to be the composer’s masterpiece. Both are single movement works, separated compositionally by six years. No. 5 is larger-scaled, running 45 minutes, against the 28 minute duration of its predecessor. Silvestrov has written a total of eight symphonies to date.

The Symphony No. 4 for strings and brass instruments has a sombre and melancholic feel, with the brass asserting their presence from the outset. Two minutes in, time suddenly begins to stand still. This tranquillity is disturbed at 12:00 with wave-like figurations from the strings, inducing a sort of mesmeric effect and giving the music a sense of forward, pulsating momentum. At the end the narrative becomes static, with the music dying away to nothing. The description in the booklet of a ‘lethargy of time’ aptly sums up the mood. Borejko has a clear vision of the score and achieves some potent dynamic contrasts; his pianissimos are particularly persuasive.

What impresses me about the Fifth Symphony is Silvestrov’s deft handling of orchestration, coupled with the melodic and harmonic richness of the writing. The many similarities between this symphony and the Fourth made me wonder whether the earlier opus was a trial run. Dreamy stillness permeates, and I was totally captivated by the lyrical tenderness at 16:00, uncannily reminiscent of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. At 21:00 the peace is disturbed and the music becomes more agitated and dissonant, with Silvestrov employing some stunning brass effects. At the end, peace and tranquillity reign. Borejko and his players invest the lyrical sections with warmth and intimacy.

Exegi Monumentum for baritone and orchestra was begun three years after the Fifth Symphony and is seen as an epilogue to it, commanding some of the same stylistic features. Set to a poem by Pushkin, whose opening words in Latin translate as ‘I have completed a monument’, it confronts the problem that faces poets, musicians and painters, how their work survives indifference and hostility. It would have been handy to have been given a text and translation. Instead we are only treated to the closing stanza: ‘Whether or not people speak kindly of you, Do not expect laurels, Do not worry about prejudice, And do not argue against stupidity’. The baritone Sergej Jakovenko offers an involved and sensitive performance.

In the remaining two works, the piano features prominently. Postludium - Symphonic Poem for piano and orchestra was written in 1984. After a dramatic angst-ridden opening, the music settles, becoming hypnotic and haunting. A starlit landscape opens up and through it the piano weaves its lonely course. Ivan Sokolov plays with devotional intensity. Seductive woodwinds play their part, the result being a beautifully managed reading.

The three movement Monodia for piano and orchestra is the earliest composition here, penned in 1965. Silvestrov was going through his avant-garde stage, with pointillistic gestures, aleatoric episodes and serialism thrown into the mix. The piano part is a long recitative. The slow, middle movement is particularly effective, with the solo piano interacting with percussion and woodwinds against a threatening backdrop. Again, Ivan Sokolov acquits himself with distinction.

Sound quality throughout is top-notch. Andrej Borejko is fully in command of the diffuse rhetoric of these works, sensitively contouring the ebb and flow of their emotional content. For an alternative version of the two symphonies, they have been recorded by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste (BIS-CD-1703 - review). I’ve never heard that disc, so can’t offer a comparison.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews (Rob Barnett): Volume 1 ~ Volume 2

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