Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt have both called the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov "one of the greatest composers of our time”. He is also one of its true originals; though a leading figure in the former Soviet Union’s avant-garde in the 1960s, he subsequently came to realise that "the most important lesson of the avant-garde was to be free of all preconceived ideas – particularly those of the avant-garde." Silvestrov was born in Kiev in 1937 and studied the piano at Kiev Evening Music School, then composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. His early experimental orientation meant that his work received official criticism in the Soviet Union and, despite prizes and some prominent champions, recognition in his homeland and beyond was hard won. Over time, Silvestrov’s compositional practice evolved into what he would come to call his “metaphorical style” or “meta-music.” The composer wishes his works to be seen as “codas” to musical history because “fewer and fewer texts are possible which… begin at the beginning”. He has declared that “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.”
The Book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning was the Word and that the Word was sound. But what if it was music? What if God, in contemplating the creation of Creation, sang being into being? If so, it might have sounded something like the Sacred Songs of Valentin Silvestrov. In this seventh ECM album devoted to the Ukrainian composer’s music, we thusly encounter a sense of space unique to the Russian liturgy: the more the voices unify in movement, the more they lift from one another like temporary tattoos, leaving behind mirror images that wash away with baptism into infinite oneness with the Holy Spirit. Sin as sun. Firmament as fundament.
Valentin Silvestrov is not just the Ukraine’s most prominent composer but also a major voice in the music of our time: a quiet voice, to be sure, and one that some will pigeon-hole at the soft-core end of the New Spirituality. But even a first encounter should suggest the presence of deeper perspectives, and encounters with the full range of his music only serve to confirm that impression. Russian commentators have long since ranged Silvestrov alongside Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Denisov as one of the most important figures that came to maturity in the 1970s. It was then that he produced music such as the two Cantatas – the earlier one for soprano and chamber orchestra, setting words by Tyuchev and Blok, the later one for a cappella choir to verses by Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Chevchenko. Both works blend Webernian angularity with an ecstatic lyricism.
The title of ECM's release of works by three composers born in the former Soviet Union perfectly captures the mood of the CD – it is truly mysterious. Although more than half a century separates the first of these pieces from the most recent, they share a sense of otherness that defies easy explanation. The pieces are not so much mysterious in the sense of being eerie (although there are several moments that might raise the hairs on the back of your neck if you were listening alone in the dark); they are unsettling because they raise more questions than they answer.
Since 2001, ECM has enthusiastically championed the art of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov with recordings of his orchestral, chamber and vocal works – creations that stand as some of the most arresting and moving in contemporary music. This continues in Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year with “Sacred Songs”, the seventh album ECM has devoted wholly to the composer’s music; it collects sets of songs, refrains, psalms and prayers composed from 2006 to 2008 that reflect the composer’s late-blooming interest in writing for a cappella voices, which led previously to the ECM releases “Requiem for Larissa” and “Sacred Works”.
Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b.1937) is an important contemporary voice in vocal music. In this new release, Silvestrov’s hauntingly beautiful vocal works are performed by the Latvian Radio Choir under their director Sigvards Kļava. During his artistic career, Silvestrov has explored a number of musical styles and techniques, such as avant-guard, post-modernism, neo-classicism, dodecaphony, aleatoric writing and pointillism. The fall of the Soviet Union, however, allowed Silvestrov to eventually compose spiritual works, inspired and influenced by his love of the Russian Orthodox Church music which Silvestrov imbues with his own unique sound and bursts of surprising harmonic moves. Silvestrov’s compositions are invested with the composer’s own unique personality, musical sensibility and sense of beauty.