Valentin Silvestrov – Requiem für Larissa

by 5:4

i want to say a few words about Valentin Silvestrov‘s Requiem für Larissa, which was actually released last autumn, but has only recently found its way into my ears. Perhaps there’s never been a more apposite time for a Ukrainian Requiem. Composed in 1999, the piece is as deeply personal as it gets, being a response by the composer to the death of his wife, three years earlier. As such, it would be improper to seek to reappopriate the work as some kind of surrogate ‘Requiem for Ukraine’. Yet it’s difficult if not impossible, amid the ongoing violence to which Ukraine pointlessly continues to suffer, to listen to any Ukrainian music, particularly music expressing mourning, without some simultaneous reflection on a wider sense of loss. Maybe that’s forgiveable, perhaps even useful: after all, for the effects of war – or any large-scale tragedy or disaster – to mean anything, we need to escape from the monumental that overwhelms and focus instead on the tangibility of the individual. Silvestrov’s pain, as captured in Requiem für Larissa, is a microcosm of what is currently being shared by a daily increasing number of people throughout Ukraine.

The work is a refreshingly unusual take on what has become a bit of a hackneyed, even rather vainglorious concept. Silvestrov’s Requiem sidesteps the usual drama and pseudo-spiritual histrionics, for the most part showing disinterest to the familiar Latin text. Instead, we’re confronted by a music that is almost fatally stunned; suspended and dazed, it unfolds as halting, lurching phrases as if neither knowing how to speak nor what to say. Compounding the misery is a sense that this bleak outlook is infinite – or, rather, that one’s vision, and with it, the desire to see, has become atrophied to the point that looking down is all that’s possible. Simultaneously infinite and infinitesimal, it results, in the work’s opening section, in surely the most blank Dies irae ever composed.

Of course, such a mindset stems from a vast, inconsolable mix of emotions, and signs of this manifest in the following Tuba mirum, where the pent-up tension turns volatile, causing turbulence. The words continue in a semi-disoriented stream, articulating an angry Kyrie not so much directed at a deity as hurled in its face. We soon become aware that, though the music is so tragically entrenched, we’re nonethless progressing through the conventional Latin text at surprising speed: less than halfway through this second section we’ve already heard Requiem aeternam, Kyrie, Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Recordare and Lacrimosa, each one reduced to a truncated utterance petering out in ellipsis.

Until now, the music has been essentially rooted to the spot, harmonically immobile, merely tilting and pivoting on its axis. All of which makes what happens next so remarkable: a sudden glimpse of something radiating in the darkness, like the distant recall of a beautiful memory. The choir has long fallen silent; a retreat away from the present to the past? Either way, the subsequent Lacrimosa – how heard in its entirety – is a soft-edged return to reality, but again its language is pained, the solo soprano progressing one phrase at a time. There’s the distinct impression of an attenuated music, physicality hobbled, pulse fibrillated, coagulating into rising choral clusters as the bass sags and drags downward. We’ve moved into another form of stasis, cycling round and round, rising and falling. Again that paradoxical duality of infinity and the infinitesimal: of being locked into a single “day … of weeping”, stretching on forever. Another brief burst of volatility turns out to be just as vital and irrelevant as before.

The central movement, ‘Prochai svite, prochai zemle’ (Goodbye, o world, o earth, farewell), setting words by renowned Ukraininan poet Taras Shevchenko, both sits outside this traumatised immobility and also serves as another instance of imaginary escape from reality. Its blend of folksong- and chant-like melodic writing sounds dream-like, but is again articulated one phrase at a time, evidently still as pained and doom-laden as everything that preceded it, and its closing moments are an ominous indication that we are in precisely the same place as we were before.

The remainder of Requiem für Larissa, its final three movements, reinforce the same all-pervading stasis of grief. The Agnus Dei offers illusory evocations of Mozart that, drifting and drenched in reverb, sound even more hauntological than that glimpse of a memory in the Lacrimosa. The length of this section is striking; on the one hand it feels overlong, yet perhaps that only reinforces the desperate need to remember a past existence that grows ever more distant. For all its beauty it’s an unsettling, deeply tragic music that offers no respite at all. Indeed, eventually the fictional light fades and the music loses its way, fragmenting and ending up in a strange mix of wind and floating piano and harp chords disconnected from anything else.

We’re back in darkness, and the final two sections fixate, again elliptically, on the Requiem aeternam text. Lone words and trumpet notes are projected out into a void that shows no sign of rhythm or pulse (this is one of the work’s most enigmatic aspects, the way it seems to lack any kind of metric underpinning). and a return to surging, halting phrases expressed in spite of the pain of their utterance, finally faltering at the words “et lux”, as if the very thought of “perpetual light” were utterly inconceivable. The work’s conclusion, in keeping with its immobility, presents music heard previously: that radiant memory from the Lacrimosa, as lovely as it is heartbreaking, slowly evaporating, via timpani rolls and lone string phrases, into a blackness without end.

Performed by the Munich Radio Orchestra with the Bavarian Radio Choir, conducted by Andres Mustonen, this is a live recording from June 2011. It’s good that it’s not a studio recording, polished and honed; don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely superb performance, but a work like Requiem für Larissa benefits immensely from the vibrancy and tension that permeate the live experience. It’s not the first recording of the work, and i’m sure more recordings will come, but everything about this sounds definitive.

Released by BR Klassik, Requiem für Larissa is available on CD and download.

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Christopher C.

Thanks for drawing my attention to this new recording. I have long been disappointed by the sound quality on the recording that ECM released; in fact, I am baffled that Manfred Eicher took it up, considering the normally famously high standards of his label.

Chris L

Wow! Silvestrov evokes the tenderly-recalled-but-ultimately-unattainable like few others I know. There’s an album in a similar vein containing his 4th and 5th Symphonies that I keep returning to; I think a self-professed Mahlerhead like you would particularly appreciate no.5, Simon, and I believe Silent Songs has already come up in previous correspondence…

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