Valentin Silvestrov: Silent Songs (ECM New Series 1898/99)


Valentin Silvestrov
Silent Songs

Sergey Yakovenko baritone
Ilya Scheps piano
Valentin Silvestrov piano
Recorded 1986 in Moscow
Engineer: Piotr Kondrashin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Down through shivering fog, the moon now
Makes its way across the night,
Soaking melancholy meadows
In a melancholy light.
–from “Winter Journey” by Alexander Pushkin (trans. A. Z. Foreman)

When producer Manfred Eicher decided to make the Stille Lieder of Valentin Silvestrov available on ECM, he accomplished one of the most unprecedented rescue efforts from Russian label Melodiya’s peerless archive. The title, I have it on good word, is more accurately rendered as “Quiet Songs,” and indeed they are startlingly present in their subtlety and depth of thematic power. Silvestrov’s score demands that the trained baritone sing at the threshold of his capacity, enabling a strained, vulnerable quality to what might normally be a commanding eloquence. Yet in that vulnerability the singer spreads wings that perhaps have remained folded since childhood, arresting the heart via a new level of narrative intimacy. The piano, played to gossamer effect by Ilya Scheps, floats Sergey Yakovenko’s emphatic wonders on a current of ink and time. These melodies look deep into the core of every poem (though the music is so evocative one needn’t even refer to the translations), and find in themselves the means to flourish in a space stilled by anticipation.

These are mournful songs of lost love, unstoppable nostalgia, and (sometimes satiric) exile, and from their nearly two-hour expanse one is hard-pressed to choose favorites. Yet in the interest of exposition I can hardly ignore the heartfelt intensities—in both composition and performance—of Silvestrov’s Pushkin settings, in particular “Winter Journey” and the elegiac “Verses Composed At Night At A Time Of Insomnia.” Like footprints in snow, they are deep and prone to disappearance. By contrast, two Lermentov settings—“When The Cornfield, Yellowing, Stirs” and “Mountain Summits”—stretch Yakovenko to the cycle’s highest registers, overflowing therefrom with honest innocence. In these one senses the same diffuse gaze as Yesenin’s “Autumn Song,” which aside from being one of the most heart-stopping of the set also lifts us above the landscapes through which we otherwise trudge in desperation.

The crowning highlight in this regard, however, is Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which twists the mind into a simulacrum of its own cognition. Having sung this piece myself, my feelings toward it are admittedly skewed, though I will venture to say that if it doesn’t move you then nothing in these lieder will. “La Belle” is also representative of Scheps’s sensitivity, which renders the keys as might the wind rustle whispers from leaves. It is just present enough to carry along the voice without overpowering it, allowing its contours the grace of self-definition. Similarly, Shevchenko’s “Farewell, O World, O Earth” inspires some of Silvestrov’s most inspired songcraft, which he would revisit in his Requiem for Larissa.

The program ends with Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam (noteworthy is “Schubert On Water”), with the composer at piano. This quartet is significant not only for being a premier recording, but also for being a rare vocal postludium that, perhaps more succinctly than anything in the Silvestrov oeuvre, encapsulates Silvestrov’s post facto aesthetic with dignity and deference.

The writing throughout worms its way into the mind and nests itself where it cannot be reached by waking memory. Rather, it finds slumber in hopes of our own, seeking in the texts a source of fated sound. This is music that stops the heart and starts the mind. An incalculably important recording, at last given the permanence it deserves.

Without a doubt one of the top ten New Series albums of all time.

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