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Album review: (Canada) (Canada), April 2023

Hélène Grimaud: Silent Songs
Deutsche Grammophon

Poetry of a particularly high order is achieved by French pianist Hélène Grimaud and German-Romanian baritone Konstantin Krimmel on their recording of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Silent Songs. The duo performs twelve selections from the song cycle, which, written between 1974 and 1977, comprises twenty-four pieces and requires nearly two hours to perform. Her enchantment with the work began almost two decades ago when she was given a recording of it as a birthday gift; in the years since, she’s incorporated pieces from it into her recital programmes while at the same time searching for the perfect partner to give voice to the material, a search that ended when she met Krimmel.

A circle of sorts was closed when the two performed the material in Berlin in August 2022 in the presence of Silvestrov, who had moved to the city in March to escape his war-torn homeland. The occasion was, in fact, the first meeting between Grimaud and Silvestrov. Silent Songs isn’t the only time the pianist’s recorded his material, by the way. On Memory (2018), she performed a selection of miniatures by Chopin, Debussy, Satie, and Silvestrov, and two years later issued The Messenger, which features pieces by him and Mozart.

As song cycles go, Silent Songs possesses a very unusual status—after all, how many other composers have created material that, in their eyes, constitutes “silence set to music”? The questions come immediately: what, first of all, motivated Silvestrov to create a work so conceived, and, secondly, how does one go about achieving the silence so described. The austere character of the work reflects the turn that occurred decades ago when Silvestrov consciously decided to move away from the Soviet avant-garde for a style grounded in traditional melody and harmony and marked by clarity and simplicity (it’s hard to resist drawing a parallel between him and Arvo Pärt when the latter similarly redirected his music into the style for which he’s now known).

In Silent Songs, peaceful, nostalgic, and contemplative settings of verses by Russian, Ukrainian, and English poets connect with immediacy when they’re presented with transparency and authenticity. Texts by Russian writers Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Baratynsky, Zhukovsky, Yesenin, and Mandelstam appear alongside ones by the Ukrainian Shevchenko (in Ukrainian) and English Romantic poets Keats and Shelley (in Russian translation). Despite such diversity, the texts are united by a generally wistful tone.

Conventional musical contrasts are suspended when tempos are consistently slow and the balance between voice and piano distances itself from the customary practice of treating voice as the primary focal point. While the music is informed by humility on the composer’s part, Silvestrov is nevertheless exacting in his guidelines for how the work should be performed. Of those “performance directions,” a few capture the character of the work in its essential form: “The voice should not stand out from the piano, but should emerge as if from the depths of the piano sound, sometimes rising, sometimes falling back into it … The doubling of the melody by the piano should not be emphasized (with the exception of a number of individually marked tones), but should establish a sense of unity with the voice, creating pedal resonances.” His desire for the cycle to be presented as “a single song” also speaks to the integrated design of the piece.

The humility of the material is honoured by performances that are dignified and indulgence-free. Setting the tone is a stirring rendition of “Song can heal the ailing spirit” that’s poetry incarnate; the duo’s treatment of “There were storms and tempests,” its words likewise by Baratynsky, is as moving. Particularly entrancing is their performance of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” not so much for Keats’s text but for the hypnotic rise and fall of the melodies. The delicacy of Grimaud’s touch and the longing in Krimmel’s voice also do much to make the performance stand out. As powerful are “Farewell, O world, farewell, O earth”and “Winter Journey,” whose texts by Shevchenko and Pushkin, respectively, exude an intense sense of longing. A peak of sorts is reached in “The Isle” when the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley are coupled with music of quiet majesty.

Grimaud’s exquisite playing partners perfectly with Krimmel’s carefully calibrated delivery, which wrings intense emotion from the texts without being overwrought or lapsing into sentiment. The control and restraint exhibited by the performers and the general hush of Silvestrov’s heartfelt music make for a recording of commanding force. Recital albums featuring voice and piano are abundant, but Silent Songs is remarkable for both the beauty of the material and for the sensitive realizations by Grimaud and Krimmel. One imagines the recording will hold a special place in their respective discographies for years to come.

April 2023