Italian pianist strikes Ukrainian stillness at heart

An Italian label promoting piano music of a Ukrainian composer, it does not seem the most likely combination. Yet earlier this year, the CD Handsome Skies featuring piano works by Valentin Silvestrov (1937) arrived on my doorstep, sent from Rome by the independent label KHA Records. According to the contact person, who only introduced himself as ‘Massimiliano’, it specialises in ‘minimal music from John Cage to Arvo Pärt’.

The closest affinity is that with Pärt, of course, who became a public favourite in the mid-seventies with his so-called ‘neo-spiritual music’. Like his Estonian colleague, Silvestrov at first composed in a strict modernist idiom that brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities, and subsequently changed over to a less complex style. His cycle Silent Songs (1977) marked the beginning of a style in which tonal, ear-catching pieces predominate, often described as ‘new simplicity’. 

Valentin Silvestrov (c) Door Smerus

Valentin himself prefers to speak of ‘meta-music’ or ‘metaphorical music’, because to him, the entire music history resonates in all new compositions: ‘I do not write new music. My music is a reaction to and an echo of what already exists’.

MELODY

His work is strongly focused on melody, which in Silvestrov’s view forms the basis of everything, but was direly neglected in the course of the 20th century: ‘All music is song, whether it is sung or purely instrumental.’

The twenty pieces on the CD Handsome Skies by Italian pianist Alessandro Stella are the perfect illustration of this conviction. Whether Bagatelles, Waltzes or simply Pieces, the melodic wealth is overwhelming: they all sing from beginning to end.

Silvestrov builds his melodies with tonal and modal means, which makes them recognisable and singable. Yet his flowing lines continue to surprise, in an organic way. They never become predictable or kitschy, like the music of the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. The motifs and melodies are given ample space and sometimes breathe the atmosphere of Satie. Such associations are blown away however by the occasional fragment of folk music or jarring rhythm.

With his poetic interpretation, velvety toucher and refined use of the sustain pedal, Alessandro Stella creates a serene peace, as if we are hearing dreamy echoes of eternity. As an Italian, he manages to touch the heart of this timeless Ukrainian stillness.

Valentin Silvestrov: Handsome Skies
Alessandro Stella, piano
KHA Records KHA019

This review appeared first in the Aug/Sept issue of the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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