Valentin Silvestrov, musician and pianist from Ukraine (Photo by Kai Bienert/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Music of the here and now

Valentin Silvestrov: Silent Songs (DG)


I know it’s barely April, but I’ve shortlisted this album as one of my records of the year and don’t expect it to get easily displaced.

The project came about the wrong way round. Instead of a singer approaching a label with a cycle he or she wants to record, in this case the French pianist Hélène Grimaud carried the cycle in her heart for twenty years waiting for the right vocalist. The one she found is a young German-Romanian baritone, Konstantin Krimmel. When they came together in Berlin last summer, they were joined unexpectedly by the composer, an 85 year-old refugee from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the nostalgia, the music does not feel archaic or out of time

Valentin Silvestrov is his country’s foremost living symphonist, working mostly in post-modernist tonalities with a direct emotional impact. The Silent Songs date from the mid-1970s when Russian was the obligatory language for Ukrainian writers. Silvestrov chose poems by Pushkin, Yesenin and Mandelstam, but also by Keats and Shelley. His musical idiom falls somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Silvestrov is clearly reaching back to a settled culture that preceded the modern world and its horrors.

Despite the nostalgia, the music does not feel archaic or out of time. It does what music does best: it expresses an emotion, then another. There are rumbles in the pianist’s left hand that tell us this is music of the here and now. A Mandelstam poem, “I will tell you with complete directness”, is an artist’s perfect response to political tyranny. Krimmel’s delivery is almost conversational. Grimaud adds colours, textures, tunes. The concentration in this recital leaves the listener quite breathless.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover