Valentin Silvestrov: Sacred Works (ECM New Series 2117)

Valentin Silvestrov
Sacred Works

Kiev Chamber Choir
Mykola Hobdych conductor
Recorded 2006 and 2007, Cathedral Of The Dormition, Pechersk Lavra, Kiev
Engineer: Andrij Mokrytskij

ECM’s New Series has a love for living composers, of which Valentin Silvestrov is a personal favorite. While already highly regarded in the former Soviet Union, Silvestrov has seen a revival of sorts through his substantial representation on the label. This selection of choral music showcases a recent turn in the Ukrainian’s compositional path, written as it was at the urgent behest of conductor Mykola Hobdych. Easily worthy of a place alongside Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, these pieces abound with moments of aching profundity.

The album opens like a flower, shedding a petal with every new voice that enters. A bass intones, navigating the complex shape circumscribed by the reverberant space, as the choir responds to the soloist’s articulations. The latter sings in a subdued manner, stripping the basso profundo aesthetic down to its core, much in the spirit of Silvestrov’s Silent Songs. The choir lifts, leaving our entire landscape changed: season, time of day, climate—all of it falls away for just a few moments before we sink back down into the density of our own being. Buoyant women’s voices spiral like galaxies; an ambrosial tenor solo gives way to broader considerations, tightening like knotwork before being wrapped in the gauze of redemption; an alto transcends the hush of the choir, carrying with it the existential kindling that sparks its emotive nature.

Silvestrov’s music exists in a state of perpetual ascent, and perhaps nowhere more so than here. The choir acts as one organism, lending the frequent solos a recitational air. These are not unlike Christ’s words in red in a modern Bible: somehow distinct from their textual periphery while also constitutive of it. After listening to this album it’s difficult to recall the gaps between pieces, flowing as they do into an extended statement. By the same token, each is its own icon suspended, safe among the clutter of our anxieties. Bid to choose, I would single out “Christmas Song,” “Bless O Lord,” “The Creed,” and the two deconstructions of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria (especially the first, with its haunting whispers) as particularly moving examples of Silvestrov’s craft. The Kiev Chamber Choir sings with passionate restraint and intuition, its dynamics fluid and under beautiful control. At moments the singers practically break at the seams, inhaling and exhaling the space of their recording venue, where every nuance of breath is amplified in its union with others.

Those wanting to warm up to Silvestrov’s “metamusical” style may adjust more easily to these melodically rich miniatures. Yet there is still so much alluded to here that never reaches fruition. Rather than being a distraction, however, this technique adds depth and honesty. This is music of the night, streaked as if with time-lapsed stars, a mise-en-abyme of divine reflection.

Those who like what they hear may also want to check out the enchanting Twenty-Seven Choruses by Bartók, of which the original Hungaroton Classic recording is still the benchmark.

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