Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt have both called the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov "one of the greatest composers of our time”. He is also one of its true originals; though a leading figure in the former Soviet Union’s avant-garde in the 1960s, he subsequently came to realise that "the most important lesson of the avant-garde was to be free of all preconceived ideas – particularly those of the avant-garde." Silvestrov was born in Kiev in 1937 and studied the piano at Kiev Evening Music School, then composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. His early experimental orientation meant that his work received official criticism in the Soviet Union and, despite prizes and some prominent champions, recognition in his homeland and beyond was hard won. Over time, Silvestrov’s compositional practice evolved into what he would come to call his “metaphorical style” or “meta-music.” The composer wishes his works to be seen as “codas” to musical history because “fewer and fewer texts are possible which… begin at the beginning”. He has declared that “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.”
The Book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning was the Word and that the Word was sound. But what if it was music? What if God, in contemplating the creation of Creation, sang being into being? If so, it might have sounded something like the Sacred Songs of Valentin Silvestrov. In this seventh ECM album devoted to the Ukrainian composer’s music, we thusly encounter a sense of space unique to the Russian liturgy: the more the voices unify in movement, the more they lift from one another like temporary tattoos, leaving behind mirror images that wash away with baptism into infinite oneness with the Holy Spirit. Sin as sun. Firmament as fundament.
Valentin Silvestrov is not just the Ukraine’s most prominent composer but also a major voice in the music of our time: a quiet voice, to be sure, and one that some will pigeon-hole at the soft-core end of the New Spirituality. But even a first encounter should suggest the presence of deeper perspectives, and encounters with the full range of his music only serve to confirm that impression. Russian commentators have long since ranged Silvestrov alongside Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Denisov as one of the most important figures that came to maturity in the 1970s. It was then that he produced music such as the two Cantatas – the earlier one for soprano and chamber orchestra, setting words by Tyuchev and Blok, the later one for a cappella choir to verses by Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Chevchenko. Both works blend Webernian angularity with an ecstatic lyricism.
If you'd like to access the full scope of Alkan's quirky style in bite-sized proportions rather than piling into the Concerto for Solo Piano, Les Quartre Ages, and other large-scale concoctions, here's a disc for you. Esquisses (Sketches) contains 49 piano miniatures, each lasting from 43 seconds to a little more than four minutes. Alkan apparently composed these over a 15-year span. He eventually partitioned the collection into four volumes, arranged according to key sequence.