Recorded in Munich last year and released in time for Valentin Silvestrov’s 70th birthday on September 30, “Bagatellen und Serenaden” casts new light on the Ukrainian composer’s work. A ‘composer portrait’ in quite a literal sense, incorporating exceptional performances of new orchestral music and music for piano and strings, the disc begins with Silvestrov himself playing a cycle of modestly titled “Bagatelles”. The liner notes aptly quote Charles-Nicolas Cochin: “The genres usually referred to as small are only small when treated in a small minded way”, and there is nothing trifling about the half hour of solo piano bagatelles that open this disc. Their documentation however was a spontaneous matter.
Early in the morning in the Himmelsfahrtskirche in Sendling, before the Munich Chamber Orchestra began the first day’s work on the sessions, Silvestrov sat at the piano and began, quietly, to play. A solo piano recording wasn’t planned, but the microphones were set up for the orchestra, which included piano... Producer Manfred Eicher let the machines run anyway, and snared the first of these pieces, finding in these lontano audio snapshots a special poignancy, and encouraging Silvestrov to continue playing after the orchestra session. There is a quality to the bagatelles almost like eavesdropping on private thoughts: the pieces sound as if created in the moment. But Silvestrov scholar Tatjana Frumkis specifies otherwise: “The bagatelles form a sort of improvised cycle… Yet what we hear is not improvisation in the strict sense: everything has been fully crafted in the composer’s mind down to the nethermost detail… The living flow of the music is sped up or restrained by a prevailing sense of rubato. The dynamics are governed by the softest pianissimos that seem to expand infinitely in the interior of the church. The listener is granted an opportunity to experience one of the composer’s unique autographs, a sound-ideal with his characteristic weightless attack (‘as if on springtime ice’).” The highly unusual recording reveals a great deal about Silvestrov as musical thinker – the bagatelles are like an x-ray of his melodic imagination – and help us understand both the sources from which his larger pieces flow and the kinds of demands he makes of his interpreters. This is not the first time that Silvestrov has recorded his own music, for his debut ECM disc Leggiero, pesante already included, as a postscript, his solo performance of ‘Hymne 2001’. It is, though, the most extensive documentation to date.
Moscow-born pianist Alexi Lubimov has been a champion of new music for more than 40 years and has a long and special relationship with the compositions of Silvestrov. As he has written, “Valentin Silvestrov has created a cosmos unlike any other, with its own themes, characters and, above all, a very personal manner of thought, utterance and writing: A cosmos that has remained a unified whole, despite a marked stylistic shift - from avant-garde to the so-called ‘metaphorical style’. All of his works are like links in a chain that I can recognise, literally, with my fingers. Precisely notated improvisation inspired by illumination in a wakeful state or a dream: that is how I would describe the source of his artistic style. He has mastered the art of so notating his visions that the interpreter can understand and translate them. But as simple and transparent as it seems (there is ‘little’ in the lines, but so very much between them), his music is a great challenge. It are the tiny details that demand such meticulous work from the interpreter.”
Lubimov has previously recorded Silvestrov’s music on the ECM discs Metamusik/Postludium”, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davis, on the solo recital disc Der Bote and on the album Misterioso (with violinist Alexander Trostiansky and clarinettist Kirill Rybakov) exploring connections between Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt and Galina Ustvolskaya. Pärt is the dedicatee of “Zwei Dialoge mit Nachwort”, one of five world premiere recordings on the present disc. With sensitive direction from Christoph Poppen, Lubimov and the Munich Chamber Orchestra explore an imaginary ‘conversation’ between Franz Schubert and Richard Wagner, with a larger cast of spirits lingering in the vicinity... Alexei Lubimov also returns to Der Bote – a messenger between this world and the beyond in Silvestrov’s cosmology – heard now in the version for piano and strings and played with extraordinary luminosity, the strings sounding like “an expansion of the sonorities of the piano’s voice…”
“Stille Musik” for orchestra is dedicated to Manfred Eicher whose first exposure to Silvestrov was a recording of the Stille Lieder (Silent Songs) that he heard in the early 1980s. “Elegie” and “Abschiedsserenade” are both in memory of composer Ivan Karabitz, a close friend. The “Elegie” is based upon a fragment of Karabitz’s unfinished final composition.
Bagatellen und Serenaden is the ECM sixth album devoted to the music of Valentin Silvestrov. It follows Leggiero, pesante, Requiem for Larissa, Metamusik/Postludium, Silent Songs and Symphony No.6. Additionally, Alexei Lubimov has championed Silvestrov’s music on his own albums Der Bote and Misterioso.
Reaffirming the label’s commitment to Silvestrov and Lubimov, Bagatellen und Serenaden is also another chapter in ECM’s continuing association with the Munich Chamber Orchestra and conductor Poppen. This collaboration has previously led to New Series recordings with music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Sofia Gubaidulina, J.S. Bach/Anton Webern, Barry Guy and Giacinto Scelsi. A wide range, indeed, and further recordings with the orchestra are in preparation.
Valentin Silvestrov studied piano at the Kiev Evening Music School, and composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He was alert from the outset to new compositional approaches, and an individual lyricism and melodic feeling have been hallmarks of his work through all periods of his artistic development. Highly regarded by his peers, both Arvo Pärt and the late Alfred Schnittke have described him as one of the greatest composers of our era.
“There is a tradition in Russian culture of the auto-didactic artist genius whose work transcends the culture of his time – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mussorgsky being prime examples. This transcendental model is what Silvestrov’s contemporaries draw on when they describe his work.” – Gramophone
CD package includes German-English booklet with liner notes by Tatjana Frumkis.