Valentyn Silvestrov’s Sacred Songs


Reviews Fri, Oct 02, 2009
MICHAEL DERVAN reviews Sacred Songs of Valentyn Silvestrov

Sacred Songs of Valentyn Silvestrov St Peter’s, Drogheda
Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov was the subject of a portrait concert presented by the Louth Contemporary Music Society on Thursday. It was, in essence, not so much a portrait as a self-portrait. Silvestrov was involved in the planning, was there for the occasion, and contributed an unspecified number of unnamed piano pieces and improvisations, given in an almost seamless sequence in piano tone of the softest hues.

He left his avant-garde work of the 1960s out of the picture, and chose to ignore his change of style in the early 1970s, a time which saw him confront the past – not the recent past but the far-distant past, as a kind of allegory or memory. Since then, he has written a series of pieces which hauntingly engage with earlier musical styles and seem to record the detailed musical and emotional fallout of significant eruptions as they might be felt from far away.

This area of his achievement was not left entirely out of the portrait. The first movement of his choral Diptychon, the Our Father, was sung by the specially created choir Louth Voices under Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. It’s a piece with resonances of the music of the Orthodox Church, written in such a way that, even in as dry a church acoustic as the carpeted St Peter’s, its micro-detailing is calculated to fabricate the effect of a vast cathedral resonance.

Each half of the evening began with a new work. Elizabeth Cooney and Elisaveta Blumina gave the première of Five Pieces for violin and piano, and then played three of the seven cycles of Fleeting Melodies written in 2004-5. The new work contained evocations of a folk ballad, a rustic dance and the style of the 18th century, the violin hushed and husky-toned, the piano projected with a softness that at times made its tone almost seem melting. Louth Voices’ première of the Five Sacred Songs of 2008 was sadly lacking in security of intonation at key moments, and some of the music’s delicate clashes came across with disruptive discordance. What you might call the strange co-locations of Silvestrov’s choral style were much better captured in Bless O Lord.

Even more than the works for violin and piano, Silvestrov’s own piano playing gave the impression of a composer who has closed the distance between himself and the historical models of his allegorical style.

It’s as if he has been reeling in the past, treating it no longer as something to conjure up, but turning it instead almost into a place of residence, a place steeped in energy- drained nostalgia and consolation. And at the same time, there was something in his performance of the fecundity and self-similarity of a bunch of Schubert dances.

MICHAEL DERVAN © 2009 The Irish Times