Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatellen und Serenaden (ECM New Series 1988)


Valentin Silvestrov
Bagatellen und Serenaden

Valentin Silvestrov piano
Alexei Lubimov piano
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded February 2006, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

All too often, contemporary classical music is framed as a forward-looking genre, falling under the rubric of “new music,” as if it somehow grew of its own accord in lieu of outdated motives. But then we encounter a figure like Valentin Silvestrov, whose music always seems to look into a watery mirror and tells us that the more this art form progresses, the more it mines the depths of that which has passed. Such is the realization that brings purity his Bagatellen (2005), a set of simple piano pieces that practically weep at the composer’s fingers. Airy at first glance yet overwhelming in their melodic weight, they record rather than create, though they more than diaristic. These are images in constant motion, a far cry from family photos with timeworn edges. Some speak with the clarity of a digital home video, while others drown in the timelessness of grief. Their cyclical structures lend a delicate urgency, one that speaks to the validation of reminiscence as a primary mode of expression. After such quiet, inexpressible splendor, to be confronted with the extroverted qualities of the Elegie for string orchestra (2002) is to experience the trembling heart of something ancient. And as the strings continue their serenade in Stille Musik (2002), we feel an acute suspension. Not of winged flight but of the marionetted body that knows its limits in the grand scheme of falling, never quite sustaining its foothold once found.

A stilling rendition of Der Bote for strings and piano (1996) is the album’s centerpiece, and one of Silvestrov’s most masterful forays into harmony. This distorted Mozartean wind tunnel of cloud and afterlife lies also at the heart of his Requiem for Larissa. And it is into afterlife that we continue with Zwei Dialog mit Nachwort for string orchestra and piano (2001/02). Dripping honey from a ruptured hive, this is music that luxuriates in the full spread of its pathos. As might a drop of ink into water, it opens its tendrils slowly, well aware that without the invisibility of its surroundings its mapping would mean nothing.

It bears noting that the Bagatellen were recorded by chance when, before and after this album’s orchestral sessions, Silvestrov played alone at the piano while the tape (such as it is in the digital age) was running. Although he never intended to contribute to this recording in such a physical way, we can only bow in gratitude that he did. One gets the sense that each fragment is a portrait of his life in miniature. In a world of tiresome postmodern gestures, sometimes we need to wrap ourselves in something so mysterious that it can be nothing but a comfort. Let this be your blanket.

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