Valentin Silvestrov: Silent Songs

Sergey Yakovenko, Ilya Scheps

Following the chamber music album “leggiero, pesante”, the orchestral “Metamusik/Postludium”, and the “Requiem for Larissa”, ECM New Series is pleased to present a most remarkable recording of Valentin Silvestrov’s “Stille Lieder”, a song cycle of great importance in the development and perception of the Ukrainian composer’s work, in a double album that also includes the premiere recording of his “Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam”.“We may feel we have always known these songs,” writes Paul Griffiths in the liner notes to the “Silent Songs”, “and in a sense we have. The first hearing will not seem the first, though we will remember it for that slow shock of familiarity, how it awakens memories… Yet the songs are new – startlingly new for 1974-77, when composers in the Soviet Union were stretching boundaries…Just when composers could at last make big personal statement in public, here was one letting the past express itself, in the private dimensions of whispered song”.

Featured Artists Recorded

1986, Moscow

Original Release Date

18.10.2004

  • CD 1
  • Silent Songs: I. Five Songs
  • 1Prelude. Song can tend the ailing spirit
    (Yevgeny Baratynsky, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:25
  • 2There were some storms and blizzards
    (Yevgeny Baratynsky, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:36
  • 3La Belle Dame Sans Merci
    (John Keats, Valentin Silvestrov)
    06:59
  • 4O melancholy time!
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:09
  • 5Farewell, o world, o earth
    (Taras Shevchenko, Valentin Silvestrov)
    05:03
  • Silent Songs: II. Eleven Songs
  • 6What meaning has my name for you?
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    02:31
  • 7I will tell you with unswerving frankness
    (Osip Mandelstam, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:36
  • 8I'm drinking to Mary
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    04:23
  • 9Winter journey
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    05:21
  • 10White, a solitary sail
    (Mikhail Lermontov, Valentin Silvestrov)
    04:20
  • 11I met you
    (Fyodor Tyutchev, Valentin Silvestrov)
    06:06
  • 12The isle
    (Percy Shelley, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:52
  • CD 2
  • 1Something tender, blue, unspoken
    (Sergey Yesenin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    05:51
  • 2Autumn Song
    (Sergey Yesenin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    04:25
  • 3Swamps and marshes
    (Sergey Yesenin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    04:52
  • 4Winter evening
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    06:00
  • Silent Songs: III. Three Songs
    (Mikhail Lermontov, Valentin Silvestrov)
  • 5When the cornfield, yellowing, stirs04:31
  • 6I set out on the road alone05:31
  • 7Mountain summits04:51
  • Silent Songs: IV. Five Songs
  • 8Elegy. Verses composed at night, at a time of insomnia
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:38
  • 9Choral. A vengeful God
    (Fyodor Tyutchev, Valentin Silvestrov)
    02:10
  • 10Meditation. It's time, my friend, it's time!
    (Alexander Pushkin, Valentin Silvestrov)
    04:30
  • 11Ode. Schubert on water
    (Osip Mandelstam, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:52
  • 12Postludium. Those sweet companions
    (Vasily Zhukovsky, Valentin Silvestrov)
    03:18
  • Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam
    (Osip Mandelstam, Valentin Silvestrov)
  • 13My lashes are pricking04:28
  • 14I don't know when01:38
  • 15For the thunderous grandeur of ages to come03:25
  • 16The stone spurs of Pieria03:45
“Silent Songs” is a 24-song cycle dating from 1974-77, and is a grand gamble. For its entirety, almost two hours, its tempo is moderately slow, its texture open and spare, its dynamic hushed. … The actual music is a sort of distilled late-Romantic tonality. The piano accompaniment is made of delicately shaped arpeggios. The harmonies are studded with appoggiaturas (downbeat dissonances that resolve) and surprising (but satisfying) substitutions for where one would expect a progression to go. … Yakovenko is stunning in both his intensity and restraint, and Scheps is an ideally sensitive accompanist … A remarkable, rare flower of a piece.
Robert Carl, Fanfare
 
…there is a timeless quality in the music.
Sergey Yakovenko, the baritone in the recording, delivers a wonderfully husky, richly layered tonality, in music that seems to range from medieval chant to Russian art song (especially Mussorgsky) and on to a dreamy contemporary consciousness. This song recital is unlike any other I have ever heard and truly mesmerizing.
Peter Burwasser, Philadelphia City Paper
 
Silvestrov freely anthologizes his poems – many of which have acquired a familiarity transcending time and nationality – so that a veritable network of semantic and emotional cross-references results. Unifying this network musically is the manner in which texts are set and are designed to be sung. The vocal writing, closely following their metre and expressive contour, is delivered sotto voce in a hushed, intimate manner – as though confiding thoughts and feelings directly to the listener – while the simple, chordal piano parts are instructed to be played with the una corda pedal down. This serves to heighten the impact of the cycle when heard (as it ideally needs to be) complete, imparting to it a consistency that vitiates any attempt to describe individual songs or discern an underlying tension and release across the whole. Rather, the aura of this music is its most significant factor, communicating qualities that may have been, or are about to be, lost: something the present account conveys in full measure.
… Silent Songs is central to an understanding of the composer he was to become: an absorbing and ultimately moving experience.
Graham Simpson, International Record Review
 
Compositeur ukrainien mystérieux et original, Valentin Silvestrov poursuit depuis les années 70 une quête de l’émotion, qui recompose le passé au gré du souvenir. Son cycle de chants Stille Lieder fascine par ses sonorités vaporeuses. En complément, les beaux «Mandelstam-Lieder », où Silvestrov accompagne lui même au piano le baryton Sergei Jakowenko.
Tribune de Genève
 
Was wir hören, sind zwei Stunden geheimnisvolle Harmonie, stille Schreie in der Nacht. Vor jedem der fast durchweg pianissimo gehaltenen Lieder steht die Vorschrift „sotto voce“. Der Sänger flüstert die Melodien, der Pianist flüstert sie mit. Die Musik schwebt dahin, ins Nichts hinein. Sie ist wie ein Schatten. Oder wie ein Bild, das es gibt. Es ist ein Bild aus einem Film von Andrej Tarkowskij. Es ist das Bild eines Tropfens, der langsam, in Zeitlupe, zu Boden sinkt.
Jürgen Otten, Süddeutsche Zeitung
 
Das Geheimnis dieser Musik ist die Stille, die Langsamkeit, das Zurücksinken in eine Vergangenheit, die mit dem Volkslied oder der russischen Romanze vor Glinka nur vage zu verorten ist. Einzelne Vorbilder sind eher marginal, es geht um die Idee von russischem Gesang überhaupt, um Urformen des Unmittelbaren. Puschkin und Lermontow, vor allem aber Jessenin und Mandelstam haben die Texte geliefert, Sergeij Jakowenko hat den Zyklus mit genialer Einfühlsamkeit gesungen und gehaucht und geflüstert. ... Die Stillen Lieder sind mehr als Nostalgie und Abgesang; sie bezeichnen einen in der Moderne einzigartig radikalen Aufbruch: Silvestrovs frühzeitige Abkehr vom Avantgardismus. Und künden von einer poetischen Tiefendimension, einer ewigen Stille des Ostens, wie sie vor 100 Jahren Archip Kuindschi auf seinen nächtlichen Landschaften von Dnjepr und Krim festhielt. Westeuropäer sollten begreifen, dass es eine kulturelle Differenz gibt, die nichts mit Rückständigkeit und Romantizismus zu tun hat.
Volker Tarnow, Fono Forum
 
Valentin Silvestrovs Stille Lieder lenken das Prinzip der drastisch reduzierten Lautstärke vom Sarkastischen weg ins latent Hochpathetische. Es handelt sich um Vertonungen hochvermögender Dichtung, doch im Tonfall einer radikal zurückgehaltenen, gestauten Expressivität. ... Das übermächtig Leise der Baritonstimme von Sergej Jakowenko dämmt ein merklich gewaltiges Organformat samt überwältigender Vibrato-Intensität ein. Verhaltenheit als Ausdruck emotionalen Erdbebens, auch in den subtilen, nostalgisch der Tonalität nachhängenden Klavierparts mit Ilja Scheps und ... Silvestrov selbst. Neben der „leeren“ buddhistisch-amerikanischen Stille lernen wir nun die bis zum Rand erfüllte osteuropäische kennen.
Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, Frankfurter Rundschau
Following the chamber music album “leggiero, pesante”, the orchestral “Metamusik/Postludium”, and the “Requiem for Larissa”, ECM New Series is very pleased to present a most remarkable recording of Valentin Silvestrov’s “Stille Lieder”, a song cycle of great importance in the development and perception of the Ukrainian composer’s work, in a double album that also includes his “Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam”.

“We may feel we have always known these songs,” writes Paul Griffiths in the liner notes to the “Silent Songs”, “and in a sense we have. The first hearing will not seem the first, though we will remember it for that slow shock of familiarity, how it awakens memories…Yet though we may feel we have always known these songs, we have not. They are new – startlingly new for 1974-77, when composers in the Soviet Union were stretching boundaries…Just when composers could at last make big personal statement in public, here was one letting the past express itself, in the private dimensions of whispered song”.

Though the slowly unfurling, quiet music of these “Stille Lieder” for baritone and piano, inspired by Russian and English poetry was widely considered a departure from Silvestrov’s more overtly “experimental” work, Silvestrov himself remains adamant that the cycle represented neither a change of direction nor a change of heart. The music’s radicalism was merely internalised: “There was more of a transition than a stylistic breech”, he told Tatjana Frumkis. “The avant-garde element has only withdrawn and permeates the entire music like a pinch of salt. The technical and compositional devices work subversively, in a realm of the invisible and inaudible.”

Indeed, these apparently simple songs proved extraordinarily demanding to perform, and it was not until 1985 that the cycle was presented in its entirety, by the great singer Sergey Yakovenko, accompanied by the young pianist Ilya Scheps:

“After looking through the vocal score, I couldn’t get the music out of my head,” Yakovenko recalls. “The work seemed so unique to me that I had to forget all my previous experience and to begin my search for a form of musical interpretation afresh, with something like a tabula rasa.” Ilya Scheps illuminates its specific challenges: “For two hours of very quiet music, the singer and pianist have not only to capture the attention of the audience, but to lend expression to the incredible tension of the music - the electrifying contrasts between the very delicate and inwardly trembling and the eruptively explosive episodes of this invariably quiet work.”

Singer Sergey Yakovenko and pianist Scheps met this challenge with extraordinary resourcefulness, as this original recording of the work reveals. Made in Moscow in 1986 with the participation of Silvestrov and subsequently edited by him, the recording is previously unreleased. There have since been other recorded interpretations of the “Silent Songs” but these premiere recordings remain unsurpassed. The sensitivity of the recording itself reflects the sensitivity of the music.

In this period, Ilya Sheps was just embarking on his life as a performing musician, while Yakovenko, his commitment to contemporary music unique amongst singers in the Soviet Union, had long commanded widespread respect. Yakovenko had collaborated closely with Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denison, as well as with Silvestrov. In tribute to his achievement in performances of the “Silent Songs”, Silvestrov subsequently dedicated his “Four Songs After Osip Mandelstam” to the singer, and serves as Yakovenko’s accompanist in the current recording of this work.