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Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1972) [15:04]
Classical Sonata (1963 rev 1974) [10:33]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1975) [16:56]
Children's Music I (1973) [15:03]
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1979) [15:18]
Nostalghia (2001) [5:07]
Simon Smith (piano)
rec. 12 December 2013, 10 May 2014, 17 January 2015, Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, Scotland
DELPHIAN DCD34151 [78:09]

The Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov is one of a group of composers who came to international notice after the fall of the Soviet Union. Others in this group include the Georgian Giya Kancheli and the Estonian Arvo Prt, the best known of all. They have in common having grown up under the Soviet system, with its demands for cheerful tuneful music which would make an immediate popular appeal, then having experimented with Western avant-garde techniques before arriving at a personal style.

Silvestrov has been quite prolific: there are eight symphonies, three string quartets and a good deal of chamber and piano music. His breakthrough work was his Fifth Symphony, which dates from 1982 and of which there are several recordings (Kofman ~ Saraste ~ Borejko). However, the availability of his other symphonies has been patchy; the Sixth is on ECM. His works often suggest they have been composed in the aftermath of something tremendous which has not been articulated; he is fond of the title Postludium or something similar. At its best his music has a haunting beauty and a wonderful power of evocation. Perhaps you also have to be in the right mood to appreciate it fully.

Here we have a selection of his piano music, including all three of his piano sonatas as well as the unnumbered Classical Sonata. All these are early works, and you can hear him gradually finding his own idiom by exploring various idioms from the past and present.

The Piano Sonata No. 1 opens with a fugue on a meandering subject in a shimmering haze with both the sustaining and una corda pedals deployed. It sounds like the memory of some earlier unknown work. Occasionally you get a hint of a composer from Bach to Debussy shot through with the ambiguous harmony of Busoni or Hindemith. The idiom, though not obviously challenging, is elusive. The second and last movement is formally a rondo, though it does not sound very different from the first.

The Classical Sonata is modelled on Mozart thought it does not sound very like him. The first movement begins skittishly though there is a contrasting second subject and the occasional percussive passage. The slower middle movement is closer to Mozart, though perhaps seen from the far side of the slow movement of Ravel’s G major piano concerto. The finale is another rondo, where the main theme seems classical enough, but the contrasting episodes are quite different in character and idiom.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 is the most obviously modernistic work here. It begins in a splintered post-Webernian idiom which was briefly popular, at least with composers, in the 1960s and 1970s. Gradually this moves towards a more traditional declamatory style. We then have a passage featuring the strange sounds of the palms of the hands directly on the lower strings. Gradually the murk clears and percussive triplets take over. This is followed by an evocation of Ukrainian folk music. In the final section two parts in the high treble follow and imitate each other. This is an impressive though perhaps imperfectly integrated work.

As a contrast we then have Children’s Music 1, the first of two sets of short works which are more evocative of childhood than teaching pieces in themselves, though some of them could be played by children. The whole set show the obvious influence of Bartk’s Mikrokosmos and folk arrangements and to a lesser extent that of earlier teaching pieces such as those by Schumann. After a gentle Lullaby, Modern Dance starts innocently enough but the dancers would soon be tripping over their feet with the irregular rhythms. Gratitude is Schumannesque, while Astonishment features wide leaps and repeated chords like the second of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. Old Melody is simple to the point of naivety with a melody over simple harmonies. The Dragon and the Bird, subtitled Fantastic Sonatina, is the most extended of the set and sounds like a child’s version of Messiaen’s La parole toute-puissante from the Vingt Regards. The final Morning Ditty is straightforward and tuneful.

With the Piano Sonata No. 3 we have Silvestrov’s mature idiom. The Preludio has an arresting opening but soon subsides into slower sustained harmonies with brief flurries of notes. This moves into the Fuga, which, however, is almost impossible to follow as such as the subject consists of long notes separated from one another. The surrounding figuration gets more and more elaborate. The closing Postludio is an early version of Silvestrov’s characteristic form; it seems to search without finding.

Finally we have Nostalghia, a much later work. Fragments and wisps of melody suggest a vanished world known only as it slips away. It even seems to end in the middle of a phrase.

In works such as these, everything depends on subtlety in the touch and skilful management of the pedals. There is little if any technical virtuosity required, though the content requires emotional maturity. Amateur pianists might like to try some of these works – there is so little contemporary or recent piano music which does not demand an advanced technique. Simon Smith has specialised in contemporary composers, mainly Scottish, and is in obvious sympathy with the idiom. In any case I am not aware of any competition for this disc. The recording is clear and the resonance of the piano is beautifully caught. There is an informative sleeve-note, in English only, but curiously it does not follow the sequence of the works on the disc, which is also the chronological one. Silvestrov is worth getting to know and Delphian’s enterprise deserves support.

Stephen Barber



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