Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ukrainian piano miniatures

My ongoing interest in piano miniatures has led me from Mompou and Scriabin to the Ukrainian composer/pianist Valentin Silvestrov. Born in Kiev in 1937, Silvestrov's earliest compositions date from the late 1950s, many for solo piano. Reportedly written in a modernist style characteristic of the musical upheavels elsewhere in Europe and performed at Darmstadt along with the other luminaries of the time, they nevertheless sat poorly with the reactionary Russian musical establishment. They remain largely unrecorded to this day, and are not currently available in printed form either. Briefly expelled from the USSR Composers Union, Silvestrov withdrew from the limelight in the early 1970s, when he began using more expressive melodies and moving away from a strict twelve-tone approach. Although he continued to write extroverted works like symphonies (eight so far), he also began a series of pieces for private performance, designed to play at home. As his fame grew and the regime relaxed his travel prohibitions, these private pieces appeared somewhat sporadically in his catalog, but in the last decade or so, they have taken a more prominent place in his output. Although Silvestrov never made a career from piano performance like other composer-pianists, he features the instrument prominently, with both solo piano works and expansive pieces for piano and orchestra spread across his entire career. His publisher, M. P. Belaieff (coincidentally also Scriabin's), has recently issued compilations of these short pieces written for solo piano.

Silvestrov considers these pieces generally as bagatelles, but if I had to pick is a single word to describe them, it would be elegiac. Largely diatonic melodies with sparse and resonant accompaniments, Silvestrov betrays his avant-garde origins only through extremely specific notation, and even occasional use of the inside of the piano. Several different kinds of accents punctuate his phrases, and frequent tempo changes, often several in a single measure, are precisely specified, paradoxically creating a natural and organic rhythmic flow. His pedal markings get just as much attention as the rest. Nearly all of these pieces use the soft pedal throughout, and he holds the sustain pedal for several measures at a time, reiterating to the pianist not to change the pedal, even when the harmony changes around him. "The harmonies overlay and supersede each other," he writes frequently in Oral Music, a set from the late 1990s. He even notates a pedal vibrato, which I've never seen in any other piano music. The only comparable pedal markings I've ever seen are in Pierre Boulez's Third Sonata, a monster of a piece whose pedal markings are among the most frightening in the literature (and inaudible on most recordings, but that's for another post). And yet, these bagatelles are highly approachable, requiring great musical sensitivity without much traditional virtuosity.

Belaieff has collected a number of Silvestrov's piano works into three volumes arranged chronologically, a convenience not often available for score keepers of living composers. In addition, the thirteen bagatelles that Silvestrov performed on the lovely ECM album Bagatellen und Serenaden were published separately a couple of years after the recording was released. On the recording, Silvestrov performed the pieces from memory, selecting these thirteen from a much larger pool that he carries in his head. He probably wrote them down almost as a marketing tie-in with the recording, although to Belaieff's credit, other than the collection's title Bagatellen there's nothing on the cover to tie the two together. But the score reveals much that the album left shrouded. Where the recording has thirteen numbered Bagatelles, the score divides them into five separate cycles, with occasional titles to both suites and individual pieces. And for all the harmonic and chromatic richness of these brief pieces, only one of the thirteen has a key signature; the others appear to be in C Major, tonality of all white keys. This deception is one of Silvestrov's strengths, because for all of the pretty melodies and triadic harmonies, the progressions are anything but classically tonal. They wander all over the gamut, repeating anything from short motifs to longer phrases to whole sections, then suddenly stop with a slow arpeggio parked some distance from the last lingering resonance. Most unusually, the score labels the suites "opus 1 - 5," perhaps designating them as a new beginning after all of the other, more complex, music that he composed over the previous four decades.

One of the forms to which Silvestrov is repeatedly drawn is the postlude, by tradition a musical conclusion, such as the organ piece at the end of a church service. Characterized by calm and tranquillity, postludes also place themselves in time, and in Silvestrov's case, the time period is the entire history of western art music. He frequently revisits music from the past, finding elliptical and wayward sources for his reminiscences. For example, one of his pieces is based on a waltz by Franz Schubert composed for a friend's wedding in 1826 but never written down. It survived through oral transmission in the friend's family for generations until composer Richard Strauss wrote it down in 1943 and became widely known only in 1970 when Universal Edition published it in facsimile. The Wedding Waltz is in G-flat major, and although Schubert was fond of strange and unexplainable harmonies, the concluding G-flat in the melody is harmonized by a conventional G-flat major arpeggio. Silvestrov follows Schubert almost note for note until this cadence, where instead of G-flat major, he moves to D major, pivoting on the G-flat/F-sharp enharmonic equivalent. The effect is somewhat startling, but beautiful, and skirts the conclusion associated with a final cadence. Schubert's waltz is in a simple A-B-A form; Silvestrov sends everything around one more time, as if one repetition is insufficient to bridge the distance between 1826 and 2002. The second time through, the sound is fuller through the use of octaves in the bass and a shift in the melody that relegates some of the original melody to a harmonic role, and brings out notes that were originally in the background. The last time through, he lets the melodic phrases linger through a precisely notated rubato, altering the meter to let the tempo slow down, the heartbeat and breathing becoming more serene. Each retelling introduces slight variations in the melody and harmony, so the pianist can never become complacent or stop paying attention, which is part of what makes this such superb music to perform. Silvestrov's everpresent injunction, "listening into," is essential.

Silvestrov's exposure in the west has come largely through the efforts of Manfred Eicher, whose ECM label has issued seven albums devoted to Silvestrov since 2002, continuing their interest in more approachable Eastern European composers that also includes Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli. I first heard Silvestrov's music on pianist Alexei Lubimov's recital disc Der Bote, a superb set of ten piano elegies spanning three centuries. Despite my arcane iPod rotation practices, this one stayed there for a long time, until I finally had to pursue more recordings, and, ultimately, the scores. But the only recording devoted entirely to Silvestrov's piano music is by Jenny Lin, a sensitive and virtuosic performer of idiosyncratic repertoire whom I've written about before. Lin's recital comprises mostly Silvestrov's recent work, with the majority of the pieces composed since 1996 (and published in Volume III of his collected piano works). The exception is the penultimate piece, his first piano sonata from 1972, which functions as an echo of Silvestrov's roots in the avant-garde. Its sparse, resonant character and meandering melodies show the continuity between his earliest and his most recent compositions, even as it occasionally blossoms into dissonant, florid gestures.

Lin's recital is a clearer recording than Silvestrov's own performances on ECM, which were recorded in a church rather than a studio and which trade the building's glorious natural reverberation for a more controlled crispness. But Bagatellen und Serenaden has its own impeccable sequencing, moving from Silvestrov's performance to a series of arrangements of some piano pieces for strings, both with and without piano. The pianist on the ensemble pieces is Alexei Lubimov, who has remained one of Silvestrov's champions, and appears on other ECM Silvestrov recordings for piano and orchestra. With the addition of the strings, the sense of longing inherent in the melodies is heightened, and the natural resonance of the strings adds weight to the harmonies of the piano. Both albums include lovely versions of the Schubert Wedding Waltz, Lin with the solo version and Lubimov with the version for strings.

Whether due to lingering barriers between the former Soviet republics and the English-speaking world, or simply because Silvestrov is still active, there isn't enough written in English about him. The leading authorities on his music are all Russian, and writings from the apparently acknowledged expert, Tatjana Frumkis, as far as I can determine are only available in translation as liner notes. Wikipedia is pretty bare bones, and Silvestrov's page at a generally excellent Soviet Composer's site has little biographical information and hasn't really been updated in a while. Schott Music distributes his scores in the west. Lin's recital and the various ECM recordings are available just about anywhere, including the electronic retailers, but in all cases without the liner notes (which, especially for the ECM albums, are extensive).

Silvestrov photo by Victor Marushchenko.


maready said...

Caleb --- a nice piece on an inexplicably ignored (or underrated) composer. Although I find the piano pieces (and much of his later, post-1990 work) weak. I am convinced that the String Quartets, the 'Stille Leider" and four symphonic works (Symphonies 5 and 6; Metamusik; Dedication) are among the most ambitious and most beautiful works of our time.

The lack of critical appreciation, as far as I can tell, comes from the "ECM-effect": he seems to have gotten lumped into peoples' minds with Kancheli, Part, Mansurian and other eastern European composers who have been marketed by ECM in a particular way, in an attempt to repeat the freak success of Gorecki's Third Symphony.

Two comments: first of all, while ECM has contributed more than its share of pretty background music, the label has also released music that in no way fits that category, from the Music Improvisation Company and Marion Brown to Lachenmann and Barraqué. Silvestrov most definitely belongs with the names I've mentioned: there is a meditative aspect to his music, but anyone who puts it on as background music is in for an unpleasant surprise. Secondly, it seems to me that the falling-off in quality begins with the composer's "Requiem for Larissa" ... and it seems that after the death of his wife (Larissa) he has mostly stuck with miniatures and quasi-tonal pieces that I find much less interesting. Earlier in his career, in the 'Stille Leider' and "Kitsch Music', he knowingly used tonal, somewhat over-the-top sentimentality to create an uncanny and disturbing effect. There was always an implicit criticism in the way he handled banal material; that distance now seems to have disappeared and his recent music simply strikes me as banal.

Still, I am very happy to read your appreciation and will simply add my own recommendation for "Stille Leider", available in two recordings one on ECM and one on Megadisc, both very good. And the aforementioned symphonic works are simply amazing --- there are multiple recordings of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, works that seem to me to be all that I had expected and not found in such composers as Schnittke, Allan Pettersson, Per Norgaard and Glenn Branca. Thanks also for reminding me that there are a couple of O.P recordings that I have been putting off posting on my own site ... I will try to speed the process up, and will give Jenny Lin's disc an listen while I'm at it.

maready said...


There is a recording by Lubimov that includes the earlier piano music (in dissonant, Darmstadt style), on Erato. This O.P recording can be found fairly easily on 'entire CD' sites, although not in lossless sound. His piano sonatas make the Boulez comparison you make here quite explicit: they are very much in the style of the Third Sonata.