Valentin Silvestrov: Requiem for Larissa (ECM New Series 1778)


Valentin Silvestrov
Requiem for Larissa

Yevhen Savchuk choirmaster
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
Volodymyr Sirenko conductor
Valentin Silvestrov conductor
Recorded February 2001 in Kiev, Ukraine
Engineers: Arkady Vichorev and Valery Stupnitsky
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I do not write new music.
My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.”

The requiem is a curious object: on the one hand it memorializes someone important to the composer, while on the other most listeners will have never known the dedicatee. In that sense the requiem fulfills a transitory function, and a communicative one at that, bringing a sense of relational knowledge to the abyss. In the case of Valentin Silvestrov’s entry into the Requiem ledger, I feel only the mise-en-abyme of love, and the shape of its web after a cold wind has snapped half of its axial threads. Written between 1997 and 1999, it was intended to be the Ukrainian’s last composition—so affected was he by the death of his wife, musicologist Larissa Bondarenko. As with his above sentiments, the sound-world it introduces to us is a churning sea bordered in humility.

The more one listens to Silvestrov, the more one becomes accustomed to the piano’s (omni)presence in his orchestral imagination. It is both center and periphery of an ever-expanding field in which the wool of darkness is spun into light. And thus it is from the piano that the Requiem’s vocality proceeds, the choir sewn into the larger fabric with divided immediacy, such that emotions merely constitute an audible act shrouding an internal need for stillness. Tenor and alto solos shimmer against a reverberant mesh of harp and strings, each a clear path to struggle. In them Silvestrov admirers will recognize a redux of his Shevchenko setting in Silent Songs, and in the Agnus Dei a choral expansion of his Der Bote, the last piece of her husband’s Larissa ever heard. Though cut from a template, they whisper a self-taught language. Winds pressing in at all sides carry us back into the piano’s embrace, in which we realize that heaven is not a space above but one within. Retreating farther inward, morning glories all, we fold in moonlight with a simple bow, finding some respite in the laborious nature of our surroundings. Effervescence balances at the fulcrum of acceptance, only to be dispersed in the swirling pool of the final section, dissolving behind closed eyes.

I know I would not be alone in expressing thankfulness that Silvestrov has since continued to compose, but in doing so I would be missing the point. Aside from the long-distance comforts my meager consolations may or may not provide, such a gesture is as tear-distorted as the sounds that inspired it. I might also praise this recording for its engineering, performances, and packaging, but when reviewing a requiem these concerns are inconsequential. There is no way that such a project could defeat itself, for its heart has already been punctured by the loss from which it continues to grow. It is its own entity now, atrophied and crawling, searching for rest in a landscape without berth.

Larissa was unknown to me, but whenever I listen to this music in her honor, I feel as if that lack of knowledge becomes filled with something vaster, a nourishing remembrance that sustains everything we are once we have been thrown into the center of the universe to slumber whence we came.

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