Ukrainian Contemporary composer Valentin Silvestrov (aka Valentyn Vasylyovych Sylvestrov) was born in 1937 and has written at least three string quartets. The composer’s Facebook page uses the first naming convention so I shall run with that. Silvestrov began composing in a modern fashion in the 1960s but has evolved through at least two different styles since. The first two quartets, written in 1974 and 1988 respectively, illustrate one of those styles. I have not been able to find a recording of the Third Quartet, which was written in 2011.

The First Quartet is in one movement. It opens in an ambient, almost spiritual manner, with an organ-like sound, and a drone accompaniment. Vague melodies are explored, and the depth of feeling is immense; it could be Arvo Pärt. The first violin dominates the sound, while the ensemble produce a graceful backdrop. There is harmony here, and the violin responds to its changes. Gradually, the second violin comes into play, with a persistent, questioning motif while at other times it responds to the first violin’s utterances. Repeated melodic phrases give form to the music, while still retaining a gentle feeling. Occasionally, the first violin takes on a rough, hewn tone. On one such occasion, the mood changes and the drone is terminated, as individual instruments express more freely.

This melodic freedom is interspersed with peaceful passages; the cello and viola offer up slightly abstract, insistent lines. Gradually the impetus dissipates and the first violin plays sparse, haunting lines over gentle, rhythmic thrusts from the ensemble. Now the thrusts increase and the first violin makes angular statements that draw you into the music. The music diminishes in dynamics and intensity, leaving the two violins and the cello to each make random, intermittent statements. The first violin responds to a change back to the opening mood, and expresses gentle melodies; this section is prayer-like and most alluring. Long cello tones resonate into the distance, only to randomly return – we are left with one violin for a period. A sustained eerie chordal section concludes the piece.

The Second Quartet is also in one movement and is considerably longer than the First. A powerful opening features a strong cello and an almost savage violin. When this has concluded, it moves into a similar emotional space to the previous quartet. A quivering cello, slowly increasing in intensity interrupts the mood momentarily but the status quo soon resumes. The music then becomes modal, with both violins expressing wonderful sparse melodies. These melodies slowly become more expansive, with less spaces and the cello occasionally returns with its gentle rumblings. This sometimes draws the violins into a more dynamic, agitated feeling, which usually lasts for some time, all the while decreasing in intensity. A single, hurried burst of cello does nothing to change the mood.

Now we are back to extreme sparsity. The First Quartet drone presents again and the violins rise above it with thoughtful melodic statements. For a time, the music becomes inaudible until the cello introduces some abstract movement as it rumbles beneath the persistent violins. The mood is again, eerie, but to my ears very beautiful in its unfamiliarity. The violins continue with their musings; this is a very different, sparse, although beautiful sound-world. The longer it goes the more I am drawn into this piece. It has more of an other-worldly sound than the previous quartet and I find it fascinating.

A long section of two violins with occasional quiet cello murmurings continues with the violins investigating gentle abstract melodies. A pause introduces another mildly agitated conversation which represents a definite change in mood. There is a hint of pizzicato from the viola; the level of abstraction has lifted. Slowly the music edges forward with intermittent string sound effects, which cause the violins to be even sparser. Finally the work gives up its spirit and finishes on a quiet chord.

These two quartets inhabit a very similar sound-world and differ mainly in the expression of the minimal pieces of music that constantly recur, to make up the works. They are far removed from the emotionally charged, sometimes confronting pieces of the 1960s. Having heard Silvestrov’s later piano music I am aware of a further change. For those interested in these works I refer you to two ECM discs. One, Bagatellen und Serenaden, has the composer playing simple piano, while the other, Nostalghia, played by Jenny Lin, takes simplicity to an extreme level, with almost constant use of the sustain pedal and long pauses in the music and between tracks.

The review CD, titled Music for String Quartet, on the Etcetera label and performed by the Lysenko String Quartet is available at Amazon US as New and Used. String Quartet No. 1 is also available on ECM Records as Leggiero, Pesante, together with other works for various combinations of strings, and piano.

The ECM disc is on Spotify and Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 can be found on both YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Extremely captivating, sensitive, ambient music. Not for everybody’s taste.


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