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ClassicsOnline Home » SILVESTROV, V.: Piano Music - Naive Music / Der Bote / 2 Waltzes / 4 Pieces / 2 Bagatelles / Kitsch-Musik (Blumina)
Piano music is central to Valentin Silvestrov’s output. With its frequent allusions to lingering recollections of the past, this programme presents an overview of various creative periods. It begins with the composer’s reworkings of youthful sketches (Naive Musik), followed by Der Bote (The Messenger) with its beautiful Mozartian theme leading into a sonatina in the style of the 18th century. After recent works from Silvestrov’s self-defined ‘Bagatelle’ period, the recording concludes with the striking Kitschmusik, which engages with the music of Schumann, Chopin and Brahms. The Two Waltzes are dedicated to Elisaveta Blumina.
By Grego Applegate Edwards
Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review
Valentin Silvestrov (b 1937)
This recording is devoted to piano works, by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, from various creative periods of his life. The piano is the composer’s most important source of creative activity and it embraces a wide range of genres; there are sonatas and cycles for solo piano as well as large-scale compositions for piano and orchestra.
In recent years, which the composer calls his ‘Bagatelle’ period, Silvestrov has concentrated his activities on miniatures, for various combinations and, above all, for the piano. According to his own words he is interested first and foremost in melody; not in melody as something complete in itself but rather as an answer to momentary burgeoning motifs, exclamations or phrases. Hence his preference for many commonly used ‘miniature’ titles such as “Moment(s)…”).
Inevitably there is an association here with Franz Schubert’s Moments musicaux, as the resourceful publisher of Schubert’s Klavierstücke, Op 94 (D 780) called them, in 1828. According to the music scholar Horst Weber the publisher “…captured in this title something which occurs in Schubert’s music: his ability to impart a sense of duration to a moment in time.”
To our eyes (ears) each such piece, according to Silvestrov’s thinking, establishes a sort of ‘duet with silence’: a duet in which not only the sounds themselves but their resonances, the ‘sonorous’ pauses, the caesuras, the agogic accents, the changes of tempo, as well as dynamic shades of colour, all play an important rôle—all those qualities in fact which characterize Silvestrov’s mature, so-called ‘metaphorical’ style, a style which, from the 1970s up to the present day, Silvestrov has made his own. In the process every tiny detail is captured in the written-down notes. This extreme precision undoubtedly mirrors the pointillistic and serial empiricism of Silvestrov’s output in the earlier avant-garde period of the 1960s.
It is pertinent at this juncture to refer back to another of Silvestrov’s great antecedents, François Couperin, whose words he would surely have endorsed:
“One will find in the music itself an indication of the shape of the material that follows (…) It will point to the completion of the melody, or rather of the harmonic phrasing, and will imply that, before beginning the next melody, one should separate it a little from the previous one. Even though this gesture is usually almost imperceptible, without this short pause listeners of good taste will certainly sense something lacking in the performance.”¹ Let us compare this quotation with Silvestrov’s note to the interpreters of his piano works:
“In 2000 I began to write little pieces in the form of Bagatelles. Bagatelles are valuable because, above all, they are not ideologically weighted and the creative act always passes by in a flash…If you can play the piece on the piano, it is already finished, even if it has not yet been written down. But as soon as the music is written out onto the page, you are already distanced from it—the text begins to have an existence in its own right…
My microdynamic and agogic notations are an integral part of the score, just as much as the notes themselves, their duration and their pitch…For me these instructions are not merely decorative additions but are every bit as important as intervals…To put this into practice is doubtless not easy, but it is certainly worth the effort in order to arrive at an acceptable result…The composer incorporates these dynamic and agogic notations into the score as he writes. Interpreters rarely pay attention to such things because they regard them either as routine or of secondary importance. Without them his music text would not be fully realized. It is something different if these nuances are written down only after the creation of the music rather than notated with it at the same time when it becomes just as rich a component as all the other parameters of music.”²
In this way each phrase, however innocuous, is inwardly transformed, each structure is like a melody with accompaniment. ‘Genre’ music—these countless Silvestrovian Serenades, Pastorales, Waltzes, Lullabies, Postludes—cease being mere musical trifles (the literal translation of the French word ‘bagatelle’); they become, as Silvestrov, half-jokingly, half-seriously, calls them: ‘Sublime insignificances’.
At the beginning of the 1990s, after he had completed a succession of large orchestral works (Symphony No 5, Postlude for Piano and Orchestra, Exegi monumentum, Widmung, Metamusik), Silvestrov turned his attention to his own past, to his ‘old notebooks’ of the 1950s, which he rediscovered by accident. At that time the young Silvestrov, who simply enjoyed an infatuation with music which only the true dilettante can feel, and who had as yet no professional career to think about, had poured out a veritable torrent of romantic miniatures in the style of Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liadov, Grieg and Chopin, music of which he had been specially fond over the years. These miniatures were reworked in 1993 to form the piano cycle Naïve Musik (1954, rev 1993). This unpretentious music has also been ‘wakened’ into new life through the characteristics of Silvestrov’s ‘metaphorical’ style—ie his particular way of developing and articulating the musical material. The ‘blurred’ sonority, like frost flowers on a window, interrupted by interjections (pauses, fermatas, rubato—the composer’s use of Italian directions almost never changes) and with the most delicate of nuances and continual use of the pedal–all this gives rise to a sort of ‘endless melody’, which does not stop when a piece finishes but which carries on, (attacca, as in all of his cycles) into the next.
This return to the past has a conceptual significance for Silvestrov. “I understand my own development as a circular process which can be expressed in the inspired lines of TS Eliot: ‘In my end is my beginning, in my beginning is my end’. I began with naïve music and imitated Chopin a little, then went through the avant-garde, but rejected both of these firmly in favour of my ‘metaphorical style’ and have made a return to naïve music.” Included in this are the ‘small forms’, typical of later Silvestrov, to which belong the previously-mentioned Bagatelles of recent years.
Similar in manner to their classical models (perhaps like the Beethoven or Schumann piano cycles), Silvestrov’s pieces gather together, as he has said, ‘into colonies, into families’, where one piece is born out of another and all of them are changed in the process. Between 2002 and 2012 more than 200 (!) piano cycles by Silvestrov have appeared, and they can be perceived as links in an endless chain. Nevertheless, in spite of their being part of a family, each Bagatelle has its own distinctive character, thanks to the immediately recognizable melody. This can be heard clearly in the works chosen by Elisaveta Blumina for this recording: Four Pieces, Op 2 (Lullaby, Pastorale, Bagatelle, Postlude) (2006), Two Bagatelles, Op 173 (2011) and Two Waltzes, Op 153 (2009), which is dedicated to her.
Here the composer, even when confronted by the vast, boundary-free extent of contemporary music, and who in every period of his creative life has tried to compose by ear, and to construct the entire shape as melody, remains true to his creative credo.
“The moment is the beginning of an experience but I don’t know when it will end. Nobody knows the end of an experience, but the messengers are not daunted by that. (…)
The messengers (…) observe the primal connection between the existent and the non-existent…
The messengers know the opposite direction. They know what lies behind things.(…) They have found equilibrium with a slight difference. They speak of this and of that.”
These lines from texts by the eminent Russian philosopher Jakov Druskin³, with whom Silvestrov felt a spiritual kinship, inspired him to write a work of the same name: Der Bote (The Messenger) (1996) which exists in two versions, for piano solo and for piano and chamber orchestra. According to Druskin the ‘messenger’ is a symbolic figure for the relationship between ‘this’ world and ‘that’ world.
At the beginning of the work the pianist plays the major triads which are interrupted by pauses, out of which is born a beautiful Mozartian theme (‘very soft, distant, clear and plaintive’) and out of that an old-fashioned sonatina in the style of the 18th century. But, as is always the case with Silvestrov, the ordinary is here transformed from within. Having scarcely come into being, the melodies of the ‘messenger’ break down into rays of the subtlest spectrum of dynamic shades, of free tempo changes, and shimmering echoes marked “Hazy” (Nebelhaft) in the score. The composer continues his note: “The whole piece is to be played with the lightest of touches. The piano lid should be completely closed. The pedal should be used immediately so that the previous sound can resonate.” The work is dedicated to Larissa Bondarenko, the recently-deceased wife of the composer.
One of Silvestrov‘s most striking works, written in his mature ‘metaphorical style’, is the piano cycle Kitschmusic of 1977. As in his song-cycle Stille Lieder (Silent Songs) (1974–1977), a work also representative of this style, the composer returns to the phonemes of the romantic period. The first piece is like Schumann, the second like Chopin and the third and fourth akin to Brahms. What at first sight (or on first hearing) appears to be very simple or, as the composer puts it, a ‘weak’ text, is ‘metaphorically’ transfigured by the slightest of agogic, tempo and dynamic shades. Time and again the pianist is directed to play half-legato, halftenuto and half-staccato. The flowing impulse of the music is sometimes speeded up, sometimes slowed down by the instruction rubato, sensibly written into the score, (as well as the constant references to accelerando, ritenuto, a tempo and unexpected pauses, stoppagesandaccents). In the dynamics gentle sounds (almost always achieved by the use of the una corda pedal) predominate: from pppp to a ‘gentle’ mf. Finally there is a special rôle for the pedal which, according to the composer’s idea, represents an independent voice of overtones. In this way the composer realizes his own intention which he set out in the foreword to the cycle: “Play softly (pp) and extremely softly (ppp), as though from afar. Melody should be brought out carefully and should emerge as it were from the accompaniment. It is to be played tenderly and with a deeply inward and discrete sound, as if the music impinges gently on the memory of the listener and so resounds in his deepest consciousness. The composer understands the designation ‘kitsch’ (the weak, unacceptable, unsuccessful) in an elegiac, rather than in an ironic, sense.”4
English version by David Stevens/HNH International Ltd
¹ François Couperin L´art de toucher le clavecin. (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord), Paris, 1717.
² Valentin Silvestrov: Musik – Gesang der Welt über sich selbst. Gespräche mit Marina Nest’eva, Kiev, 2004. Russian version BEL 686, Valentin Silvestrov Bagatellen p. 3.
³ Я. Друскин, «Разговоры вестников» (Jakov Druskin: Die Gespräche von Boten) “Činari”. Texten und Dokumenten B.I. Moscow, 2000 pp. 547–548.
4 Valentin Silvestrov Klavierwerke Band I. BEL 681a, p. 93.
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