Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Larissa's Requiem - Valentin Silvestrov

Valentin Silvestrov
  I am in the midst of rehearsals for the Winnipeg Symphony's New Music Festival(NMF).  The NMF is a wonderfully successful venture on part of the Symphony - a week of merriment and showcasing composers from our time.
     Participating in the NMF is a "hit or miss" experience.  There have been some works where I have positively blushed performing them, wishing I were not inflicting this tripe on the audience but there have been times of supreme bliss, such as Arvo Part's Hymn to St. Cecelia a few years back.  Also, for me, the music for NMF is always difficult in that it is completely unpredictable and filled with dissonant harmonies, so that my limited musical abilities are highly challenged.
     This month I am very moved by the offering of Valentin Silvestrov, the Ukrainian composer, born 1937.  I have been rehearsing his Requiem for Larissa, which he composed from 1997-99 for his late wife.  He had thought at the time that this would be the last piece of music he would every write and indeed his complete heart and soul seem to be in this piece.  Like the other NMF pieces I have done it has been difficult to learn, perhaps the most difficult piece I have ever learned, and yet I am not turned away from it, instead I am at times weighed down by the force of his grief.
     The piece begins in a most profound way, the opening bar is a bar of nothing.  No choir, no solo, no orchestra, not a single instrument.  It is as though Valentin is saying, "My wife has died and now there is nothing."  This nothing is not a nice 4/4 nothing it is a very off-kilter 5/4 bar of nothing.  Yup.  Not only is there nothing to say, this nothing has unbalanced him.  The opening page contains 12 bars and the time signature changes 7 times!  See what I mean?  The man does not know how to walk through life without his wife. 
     The first word sung is "Requiem", the second is to be aeterna (eternal) and for 3 whole bars he tries to finish the word but can't, in the end the women sing only "aetr".  This device, of not being able to finish one's words, is used throughout the piece so that we as choristers are often left to sing only "a, oh, mm"; there is much humming and many a bar ends with an "mm".  All this fragmentation, and leaps and descents of 9ths contribute to the unsettling feeling that all is not right. For me the singer, it is a great task.  Often one does not get much support from fellow choristers either since in the 3rd movement the altos are divided into 6 parts!  One voice section - 6 different parts!!  Challenging, to say the least.
     In movement 4 we get some reprieve from this as  a lone tenor, from within the choir (as the instructions state) sings a complete poem by the poet Shevchenko, evoking a lovely Slavic melody filled with beauty and pathos, although even here the time signature keeps changing so that I can rarely look off the page, even though the altos are now only in 4 parts. 
     The 5th movement echoes Mozart and it is so" Mozartarian pretty" that it is difficult to believe the master himself did not write it.  A lovely, lovely piece of music played in turns by a solo violin or solo piano while the choir attempts to sing the Agnus Dei, but all the accidentals, fragmented words and time signature changes make this difficult, but there is much encouragement and comfort in the beauty of the solo violin and piano.  The 6th movement is much like the first and then the 7th and last movement contains 90 bars of mostly orchestration; 4 bars have the choristers singing "Requiem Aternam" this time finishing the word, although the altos are not yet ready to speak and say only (o) for 7 beats and then 5 beats all alone on our (m).
     We have had our first rehearsal with the performance conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate, and I was surprised at how much he seemed into this piece.  With all the running around he has had to do rehearsing and learning new music he seemed to have a special place in his heart for this work.   He gave the choir some brilliant instruction and I feel the piece is really coming along.  We have 3 orchestra rehearsals now and then - Ta Da- it will be performance time.  Here is the link for the NMF website.  http://www.newmusicfestival.ca/wp/ 


  1. This is most fascinating. What a superb description of a piece I know nothing about but now am totally captured in wanting to hear. I tried to listen to it but did not find an audio, do you have a suggestion? Caroline

  2. Here is a link to movement #4 which is the setting of a Schevchenko poem. It is all I could find. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkAA9ss5DGQ