n a recent interview for Gramophone magazine, Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) commented that he meant his works to be perceived as “codas” because “fewer and fewer texts are possible which…begin at the beginning.” There’s a definite air of “there’s nothing new under the sun” about that statement, but great artists have always taken diverse influences and applied them in new, unexpected contexts. In music, examples include John Zorn’s adopting the hairpin turns of Carl Stalling’s Bugs Bunny soundtracks to free jazz, and how Iggy Pop has claimed such unlikely inspirations for the Stooges as Egyptian singer Umm Kalthum and American composer/instrument builder Harry Partch. Silvestrov’s bridging of melodic romanticism with modernist atonality through a minimalist aesthetic shows that he’s no different.
The Ukrainian composer is just starting to become better known in the West, but in the former Soviet Union he has long earned the respect of such contemporary heavyweights as Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Part. Partially, this is due to his courage during the Soviet period. When faced with expulsion from the Composers’ Union in 1974, he chose to withdraw from public rather than renounce his modernist style. Instead, he composed “Silent Songs;” a cycle intended to be played in private. The songs’ quiet dynamics, use of melody, and integration of voice with piano would all come to have a direct impact on his later works, including the two pieces compiled on this new CD.
In the liner notes, pianist Alexei Lubimov remarks “there is so ‘little’ in the lines, but so very much between them” and this statement is the key to understanding “Metamusik” (1992) and “Postludium” (1984). Both long, single-movement works for piano and orchestra, they convey Silvestrov’s concerns with exploring echoes, overtones, and sonorities. Both pieces call attention to their roles as “codas” and their quiet dynamics through loud introductions. This is the opposite of Arvo Part’s approach; where Part’s works are mostly quiet ruminations in order to build anticipation for a climactic finale, Silvestrov gets the climax out of the way first so he can follow its echoes through the rest of the piece. It’s as if his starting point was the infinitely sustained chord at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”. These opening outbursts are atonal, and readily bring to mind Arnold Schoenberg.
Following the piano’s entrance, both works simmer rapidly. The Gramophone interview also noted that in writing “Silent Songs,” Silvestrov wished for the singer’s voice to “(emerge) naturally from the piano.” In “Metamusik” and “Postludium,” the same goal is achieved with the orchestra through careful writing. During “Metamusik,” the pianist plays almost no chords. Instead, complex overtones and chords are produced through the playing of atonal arpeggios with the sustain pedal; thus, much of this music is indeed “between the lines.” Silvestrov then writes parts for the orchestra that mirror and build from these overtones. The result is a clever – and total – integration of the piano with the orchestra. This technique is also used on the earlier “Postludium,” but there is more chordal writing for the piano. This throws the balance off a bit, moving it a little closer to the standard soloist vs. orchestra format of a conventional concerto.
While the hushed dynamics and long, sustained tones of both works bring to mind Morton Feldman, another strain is added in both pieces by the piano- melody. The orchestra picks it up and veers closely to Romantic territory (Silvestrov has also professed his admiration for Dmitri Shostakovich), but odd chordings and interjections from both piano and orchestra ensure that this diversion never dominates the overall atonal content of the pieces. This contrast, however, builds an interesting dynamic between the two elements through the subtle shifting between melodic and atonal episodes until the pieces fade away.
Silvestrov calls the net result a “metaphorical” music, one where melody is alluded to rather than celebrated, where his own music is seen as an afterword to a much larger body of work, where we’re closer to the end than to the beginning. That may be the case. However, Silvestrov’s careful weaving of atonal lines and explorations of overtones with Romantic melodicism produces music which, although not completely “something new under the sun,” is very original and rewarding to the patient listener.
Reviewed by: Jim Storch
Reviewed on: 2003-09-15