Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No. 6 (ECM New Series 1935)

Valentin Silvestrov
Symphony No. 6

SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Andrey Boreyko conductor
Recorded June 2005, Stadthalle Sindelfingen
Engineer: Dietmar Wolf
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

I would be surprised if Valentin Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 6 (1994/95, revised 2002) wasn’t someday recognized as being among the more significant of the twentieth century. Dedicated to Ukrainian-born composer Virko Baley, another powerful yet under-recognized voice, it speaks as might time itself. This world premiere recording is still the benchmark, given just the balance of violence and reverie it needs by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under the capable baton of Andrey Boreyko.

This piece, perhaps more than any other in the Silvestrov oeuvre, brings a distinctly programmatic energy to the fore of his craft. The first movement gasps like a hospital patient awakening from a horrible accident, pangs of realization shooting through a strung body arching against the onslaught of memory. The second is in the same vein, only now obscured by breath. Yet the heart of this symphony is its third movement, which over a 25-minute span encompasses all that frames it and more. Its sprawling, flower-like opening fears its own beauty, and so it breaks the mirror and swallows it, shard by shard. And as countless lives flow past, uncaught, unexplored, and unheard, Silvestrov’s omnipresent piano presses down from the sky, the detritus of a sifting pan turned ever so slowly by cosmic hands after being pulled from the Milky Way’s tepid waters. Winds and percussion contribute to the mounting sense of doom, forever dispelled by the occasional ray of sunlight. The aching fourth movement assures us of this chain of hopes. Clusters of starlight move like molten lava, leaving a quiet smolder to speak for their passing and lighting up the night like the flames on the album’s cover. The fifth and final movement continues from the unbroken thread of the fourth, a dangling chain that when pulled unleashes the liquid heart of a cloud, the frustration behind a prayer. It is the symphonic equivalent of a master engineer who with attentive fingers turns the dials of some vast mixing board, so that each element swells into a world in which “staccato” becomes a sin to be vanquished with the all-consuming statement of the almighty afterthought.

Although he does chart earlier harmonic territories in the Symphony No. 6, Silvestrov simultaneously deconstructs the privilege of doing so, expanding upon each harmonic cell with biological persistence. If the above abstractions leave you with little feeling as to what actually transpires over its nearly hour-long course, then this proves only the weakness of my words and not of the music that prompted them. Listen and be moved.

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