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Album review: New York Times (US)

Silvestrov: ‘Silent Songs’

Konstantin Krimmel, baritone; Hélène Grimaud, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)


The French pianist Hélène Grimaud has wanted to perform Valentin Silvestrov’s “Silent Songs” since receiving a recording as a gift nearly 20 years ago. It’s easy to understand why: They are astonishingly beautiful and criminally underperformed.

Silvestrov has called the 24-song cycle — a nearly two-hour work about grave mistakes, drowned sorrows and a hostile world — “silence set to music.” He envisioned it as a long, single, quiet song.

Sergey Yakovenko and Ilya Scheps’s foundational recording from 1986 — the one given to Grimaud — approaches soundlessness with its tense, whispered regret. Yakovenko sings in a skeletal hush, and the music aches like nostalgia that is only a memory of past failures.

Grimaud’s new album of excerpts with the baritone Konstantin Krimmel, recorded live in Silvestrov’s presence after he fled the war in Ukraine, isn’t like that. It’s practically lush by comparison. Gorgeous melodies unspool like ever-elongating ribbons. The piano doubles the voice a lot, requiring conscientious coordination between the performers at exposed dynamics, and their care conveys a gentleness they find at the work’s heart.

Silvestrov’s instructions call for a baritone that sounds like a tenor, and Krimmel, with his clarified timbre and gossamer top notes, fits the brief exquisitely. His voice — vulnerable, pliable, at times crooning — has the bloom of youth. Grimaud’s playing, softly golden and delicately smooth, tethers the melodies, allowing them to billow freely without floating away. In their hands, these autumnal songs have the warmth of well-tended embers. OUSSAMA ZAHR