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Valentin Vasilyevich Silvestrov: Liturgical Chants – Two Spiritual Songs – Two Spiritual Chants – Two Psalms of David – Diptych – Alleluia
Kiev Chamber Choir, Mykola Hobdych (conductor)
Recorded at the Cathedral of the Dormition, Pechersk Lavra, Kiev (2006-2007) – 72'
ECM 2117 – Booklet in English and German

This haunting, gorgeously produced disc of choral music will hopefully make the name of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov more familiar, especially in the United States. Using a harmonic language that draws variously from Renaissance madrigals, Rachmaninoff's Vespers, and Poulenc's a capella works, Silvestrov capitalizes on the evocative Slavic choral tradition, the Kiev Chamber Choir sings with majesty and mystery, and ECM's engineers capture everything expertly.

There is a wonderful consistency to Silvestrov's writing throughout the program, allowing the listener to appreciate many perspectives of his style and observe how a master composer, fully in command of a personal style, can make subtle differences within works sound monumental. All the works on the disc are approachable, and Silverstov is unabashed in his use of direct repetition, comforting the listener and construing the ritualistic nature of the texts. The composer has a wonderful instinct of how long to go without change and when to being injecting the unexpected into the musical proceedings. The opening eight minute "Litany", for instance, is mesmerizing in its invariance for nearly five minutes before Silvestrov begins to alter the strictly modal writing with whole-tone inflections, a delicate, tantalizing alteration that is handled so sensitively that one is instantly convinced of its correctness.

The majority of the works date from 2005 and 2006, and there are many interesting comparisons to make. There are three settings of the "Alleluia" text. The first, closing out the "Four Spiritual Songs" within the Liturgical Chants, is a brief, lilting number with a latent ecstasy and wispy soprano melismas at its outset. The Two Spiritual Songs also open with an "Alleluia", and the 'song' description here is most apt, the sopranos providing a strophic melody, the remainder of the chorus acting as accompanist and occasional commentator. The final setting is a three-movement work, divided into 'Evening', 'Morning', and 'Night'. This version's initial proud, thick men's voicing unfolds into a homophonic setting of the text. The second movement is reminiscent of the version in the Liturgical Chants, and the disc closes with the 'Night' setting, a baritone solo doubled by the chorus in octaves and cushioned by the close, diatonic harmonies from the opening of the work.

The one earlier work, Diptych, from 1995, sets The Lord's Prayer and a poem by T.H. Shevchenko. In these two settings, Silvestrov's language shifts more suddenly between modality and chromaticism, and the later works seem more focused and refined in their integration of subtly changing elements. In its penultimate position on the disc, the Diptych thus provides the curious listener a glimpse into another epoch in Silvestrov's compositional development.

There are many fine solo contributions from the Kiev Chamber Choir, including a stunning melismatic refrain in the opening 'Litany' delivered by the Revered Father taras Mudrak. The choir is captured in a very resonant acoustic, yet details are never lost. Chords are always impeccably balanced top-to-bottom, choral tone is uncannily consistent even in extreme ranges, and diction is flawless. Texts are not provided, but most are familiar, the notable exception being the Shevchenko 'Testament'. In all, this is one of the finest discs of modern choral music that has been recently released. Meditative, ecstatic, haunting, and concerned first and foremost with beauty, the program is a must-have for lovers of great ensemble singing.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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