The Contemplative Power of Melody in Silvestrov’s “Silent Songs”
Eighteen years ago, when pianist Hélène Grimaud first heard “Silent Songs” by Valentin Silvestrov, she was transfixed, and now she has recorded them with baritone Konstantin Krimmel.
Valentin Silvestrov is a Ukrainian composer who fled his country soon after the war began in 2022 and is now living in Berlin. He was trained in the avant-garde style of the Soviet Union in the 1960’s, but he made a clean break from that style and philosophy in 1977 when he composed “Silent Songs.” It caused an uproar in the new music community: here was one of the foremost “non-traditional” composers of the time, writing a cycle of songs with “traditional” structure and melody, turning modernism on its head, and changing the direction of his own work and life.
The texts of “Silent Songs” are contemplative poems by writers he admires: the iconic Russian poets Pushkin, Mandelstam, Yesenin and Baratynsky, English writers Keats and Shelley in Russian translation, and Ukrainian nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko. Shevchenko’s lament for Ukraine – “Farewell, O World, farewell O earth!” – is one of the most poignant ballads in this collection, bringing to mind Silvestrov’s own exile from war-torn Ukraine.
As Grimaud puts it, she was “transfixed” when she first heard the song cycle.
“I knew immediately that I wanted to play it, and hopefully record it . . . so that took a long time,” she said.
But it was well worth the wait, until just the right voice came along. Silvestrov stipulates that the pieces should be sung by a ”lyric soprano with quiet low notes . . . or a baritone whose timbre is close to that of a tenor,” and the young German-Romanian baritone Grimaud has partnered with fits the bill exactly. Konstantin Krimmel’s beautiful tone melds into the rich piano sound, and listening becomes an act of meditation.
I talked with Hélène Grimaud about her experience with this music and the feeling it evokes — like being enveloped in a warm blanket. And I included some of the music along with the interview. See how it makes you feel, when you listen with the player above.
Alan McLellan I’m Alan McLellan for WCRB and GBH Music here with Hélène Grimaud, pianist, conservationist, writer, human rights activist, most of all for me, a brilliant pianist. Her new album with baritone Konstantin Krimmel is called Silent Songs: Music of Valentin Silvestrov. Hélène Grimaud, thank you so much for being here.
Hélène Grimaud Thank you for having me.
Alan McLellan You have an amazing career as a concert pianist and recording artist, and you’ve made your mark in these other areas, writing, conservation, particularly conservation of wolf habitats, establishing this wolf conservation center, and human rights as well. How do you juggle all these things?
Hélène Grimaud Well, it’s always a balancing act. But, you know, with passion, when you have good energy, you are blessed with a good amount of energy, and you love what you do, then it comes relatively easily. And as much as you are warned as a child to choose, you know, sometimes you just want to choose it all. And then it’s just a question of time management.
Alan McLellan It seems like the impetus to get you started down all these roads was personal in each case. Is that right?
Hélène Grimaud That’s absolutely right. I believe that it is through personal connection with a being, being human or otherwise, that you can become motivated to engage with the cause or to try and make a difference. I think you have to first be touched. And so I believe that that’s the most important trigger. Yes.
Alan McLellan So when did you first encounter the music of composer Valentin Silvestrov?
Hélène Grimaud I was very lucky. Manfred Eicher, from the ECM label, gave me a present on the occasion of my birthday, this was 18 years ago, of the Silent Songs, and that was my first introduction to Silvestrov’s music. I put the CD in the player. I didn’t look at the booklet before, so I didn’t really, other than what Manfred had told me about it, I didn’t know specifically what I was going to be listening to, and I was transfixed.
[music from Silent Songs begins to play]
Hélène Grimaud I was so touched by the music and fascinated. So it was the beginning of a long, long relationship. As you can see, a long time in the making. When I first heard the cycle, I knew I wanted to play it and hopefully record it.
[music continues playing]
Hélène Grimaud So that took a long time. But I…right away, though, started to look into the rest of Silvestrov’s pieces and started then programming other works such as The Messenger, Two Dialogues with Postscript, and then his bagatelles. So it has been going on now for 15 years. I mean, at least the act of playing his music in concert.
Alan McLellan Can you tell me a little more about him? Because he’s really an interesting character, as I was reading. He kind of has made some specific breaks in his work, in his style and in, I guess, maybe his allegiance to schools of music composition. Can you talk about that a bit?
Hélène Grimaud Yes. It’s always interesting to see the evolution, the different phases, the different languages. And of course, this, you know, return to the roots in a way to the source and this belief that if music isn’t emotional, we don’t really need it. And therefore it is best if it is rooted in harmony and melody and not only rhythm. And he said something very beautiful about how, you know, melody is what enables connection. Just like when you meet a human being, it is through the smile that you are going to be able to truly look at the person who is in front of you. And he… That’s what he says. He says for him, melody is the smile and what makes contact initially.
Alan McLellan So he started in the Soviet system.
Hélène Grimaud Yes.
Alan McLellan It probably was not something that he could easily navigate, at that time. It was pretty restricted what he was allowed to write, as I understand.
Hélène Grimaud Exactly. And that’s another thing I admire is his resolution and his courage, you know, to write what he believes in, regardless of what people might or might not think of it. And for him, I mean, you know, that music is it’s… I say it’s poetry. This is the way I perceive it. It’s pure, it’s authentic, has this wonderful transparency. It emanates from the human soul, is highly evocative, generates emotions and is quite powerful. And that is something that you notice as an interpreter when you perform the music, when you’re given that chance. And you see how people react. And he’s a magician in the sense that he’s able to create this inner space within the sound and really captivate the soul of his audience.
[music resumes, and continues softly through conversation]
Alan McLellan It’s an amazing experience, I think, to listen to his music. I just feel enveloped in it.
Hélène Grimaud Oh, that’s a beautiful way of talking about it, that’s right.
Alan McLellan Yeah, you’re just kind of sinking into this. Almost freefalling.
Hélène Grimaud Yeah.
Alan McLellan And yet he has also a dedication—a deep dedication to poetry and text.
Hélène Grimaud Yes. Yes, he does. At the same time, you know, music is I mean, for me, it’s the ultimate art form because it transcends language. It renders language absolutely superfluous. And so what is beautiful is that there is infinite variety within a relatively reduced dynamic range. And with every, you know, strophe of the poem, which returns, of course, with a different text, you know, his harmonies and melodies resonate every time differently. It’s really quite, quite fascinating. But it’s…for him, I think it is the basis of his music at the same time as he so beautifully puts it. He says he doesn’t really create anything. He is…hmm. I don’t want to say capturing because the word used is “capter” [in French] to, you know, to receive something, to catch something which comes to you. It’s extremely humble. Well, his whole being is very…is humble, is unassuming, is discreet, soft-spoken. At the same time, he’s a man of great intensity and resolution. So there is always this intensity in the music, something which reminds you to be…Well, vigilant…aware, to remain aware.
Alan McLellan I get the sense that other music has not had the same effect on you, in the sense that, you know, when you first encounter a composer…This is something special, no?
Hélène Grimaud Yes, it is. Just like it was with Arvo Pärt, with John Corigliano, with…Well, it has happened with composers I have not performed, but whose music I’ve intensely enjoyed and admired for a long time. But I haven’t been very active in that department for sure. Although there’s more coming.
Alan McLellan I just wanted to come back to this idea of the text for a moment, because it strikes me that, as you know, an English speaker, North American who doesn’t speak any Slavic languages, it…I can just sit down and listen to this music and it still has deep meaning, regardless of whether I understand the words. And then I look at the text in your notes in the program booklet and it opens up a world. So I can kind of get a sense of where he’s going, but it’s almost unnecessary in a sense.
Hélène Grimaud I could not agree more with you. And that’s what I find miraculous as is again, the music itself is so much more expressive. Because words as you know, as wonderful as they are and as eloquent as one can be, it’s still a way to hide. And it never is as essential as this musical language, which goes straight to the heart, comes from the heart. There’s…it’s really…I believe it is the purest form of expression that there is. And if you don’t feel what is going on by listening to those sounds, I don’t think you would be penetrating the poem through the guided manual that the words are, you know. So I think it’s…Yeah, it’s quite fascinating. I agree with you. And that was my feeling when I first listened to the cycle. Again, I did not know what those poems were. I had to look up the translation anyway, since I am unfortunately not able to understand or speak Russian, but it was secondary in the end, as beautiful as those poems are.
Alan McLellan You’re working with a young baritone. Very young—he’s still in his twenties, right? Konstantin Krimmel, and his voice just seems perfect for these songs.
Hélène Grimaud Yeah, absolutely. I mean, his voice is magnificent, and he’s such a great artist. He has such a generosity of heart and spirit in the way he approaches this—and this took courage, too, because we met relatively…I mean, at relatively short notice. I mean, so we played the music and recorded it in September together. And we met for the first time in May, just a few months prior. He has a very busy schedule, knew that he was going to be in Salzburg most of the summer, and had never sung in Russian, always wanted to sing in Russian.
Alan McLellan Oh, wow.
Hélène Grimaud Obviously has an ear and a gift for, you know, Slavic languages, perhaps because he’s not only of German descent, but of Romanian descent as well, but perhaps not, perhaps nothing to do with any of that. So he’s extremely gifted on every level. But it required courage to take this on. It’s a lot of work. And he did it so, so beautifully. And the voice is, as you said, I mean, the voice is wonderful. Mind you, his voice can, I’m convinced, do everything. And I’ve heard him in other things. And I can say that he has a great range, but the warmth and the depth and the colors in his voice are simply marvelous.
Alan McLellan Do you have a sense that you’re taking a different role here? I mean, obviously, you’re working with a partner. You do that in a lot of your projects. It’s not all about you in many situations.
Hélène Grimaud No, but I mean, that is the best way to grow. I mean, it’s through this exchange, we learn from one another by sharing. You grow from being at the contact of someone else’s being, their vision, the work together, also. Sometimes you have to actually meet in the middle. But what is marvelous is that it’s not a compromise in any way. It’s actually something which enables you to expand your horizons and your own possibilities. I think with a singer, it’s even more intimate than with another instrumentalist. When you do chamber music together, there’s something even more special here, because everything happens within this sotto voce world. And so it requires an intimacy in the way that you do it. And as a result, there is this incredible closeness which develops. And for a pianist, I think because we’re such lonely animals, which can be absolutely wonderful, by the way, it’s one of our great strengths and privileges to also be able to be alone on stage and not need anyone else to make music. But when the partnership is worthwhile, then it’s…then nothing else comes close to it. Yeah, it’s this shared freedom, this act of breathing as one and feeling as one organism. It’s the greatest gift.
Alan McLellan I couldn’t help thinking about wolves when you said that a pianist is a lone animal. Do you think about the animals as you’re playing sometimes?
Hélène Grimaud Where the wolves are concerned? You know, I know they say lone wolf, but in reality, and again, when you speak about top predators, you always have to qualify what you’re saying with, in principle generally, because there’s always the exception that proves the rule. They’re all individuals. But it’s only a temporary phase in the life of a wolf. It’s when they reach sexual maturity and they might disperse from the pack to start their own family group. Wolves are intensely social, so there we’re back to partnership and cooperative social unit. And in that is our strength.
Alan McLellan So this metaphor serves you well?
Hélène Grimaud I hope so. I hope I can keep learning from it. Some of my natural tendencies go against the grain, but I’m trying.
Alan McLellan Well, it seems like you’ve really touched on something that makes a deep impression in the listener, and I really hope that you have a lot of success with this recording. It’s called Silent Songs. And again, I’ve been speaking with Hélène Grimaud and her recording with Konstantin Krimmel is Silent Songs by Valentin Silvestrov. Hélène Grimaud, thank you so much.
Hélène Grimaud Thanks to you.