Classical Music

LEBRECHT LISTENS | Silvestrov’s Requiem Is An Outstanding Work Of Art In Our Troubled Time

L-R: Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov in 2009 (Photo: Smerus/CC BY-SA 3.0); Valentin Silvestrov at the International Shostakovich Festival in Kurort Gohrisch, Germany on July 1, 2022 (Photo: Solobratscher/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Silvestrov: Requiem für Larissa (BR Klassik)


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In May 1996, the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov was informed that his wife, the musicologist Larissa Bondarenko, had died suddenly and unexpectedly in a hospital in Kyiv. The shock silenced him for several months. After a long while he began writing a Requiem in her memory, jumbling the traditional Catholic order of movements familiar from so many classical works and occasionally breaking off in mid-phrase, as if too distracted to continue.

Living under Soviet control, Silvestrov developed multiple techniques to confuse the authorities and cut through to a sympathetic audience. He created an unmistakable individuality out of a heterodoxy of neoclassicism, post-tonality, collage, minimalism and selective use of electronics.

The second movement of this Requiem engages an amplified synthesizer to shocking and surreal effect. Amid the stylistic chaos, an atmosphere emerges that is akin to the Last Judgment in Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, a confrontation of a lone human being with our ultimate moment.

The solo passages in this hourlong may be a singer or a concertmaster’s violin, but there is never any doubt that the solo represents each and every one of us in our most intimate and ineffable moment. A melody flickers from Mozart to Webern to Theremin, Stockhausen and Philip Glass. The composer, creator of confusion, is absolute master. He speaks: we listen. There is no resolution. I am gripped and shaken more with each successive hearing.

A 2001 Kyiv premiere on ECM Records, vivid as it is, is altogether eclipsed by this 2021 performance by the Munich radio orchestra and the BR chorus, conducted by Andres Mustonen. The Requiem comes over as an outstanding work of art of our troubled times. I cannot understand why we haven’t heard it in Salzburg, Lucerne, Tanglewood or the BBC Proms. This coming summer would be a good moment, in the terrible shadow of the Ukraine war.

Silvestrov fled his homeland with some difficulty soon after the outbreak of war. Aged 85, he lives now as a refugee in Germany.

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