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Silvestrov's Ukrainian Nostalgia

Simon Smith's new album traces the career of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.
Veronica Alva
Courtesy of the artist
Simon Smith's new album traces the career of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.

The Brazilians call it saudade. It's an elusive, almost intoxicating mix of emotions suffused with longing, loss and memory, best evoked in music. Perhaps Ukrainians have their own word for it. But if not, it can surely be heard in Valentin Silvestrov's Nostalghia, a solo piano work from 2001 that may just leave you a little lightheaded and yearning for something inexplicable.

Nostalghia is music stripped bare. The fragments of melody, interrupted by profound stillness, float like hazy memories. Half-recalled scales, beautiful in their childlike impairment, recall Brian Eno's Music for Airports. But Silvestrov has calculated every nuance. The lingering mist is achieved by painstaking instructions in pedaling. Pianist Simon Smith, who appears to have this music in his bones, says that Silvestrov asks for the sustaining pedal to be depressed just two-thirds of the way in strategic places. He also determines which notes of the preceding harmony to hold in order to mask the pedaling changes. At the end, the music suddenly evaporates, leaving you yearning for final notes while holding fast to those just heard.

It turns out Silvestrov, a 78-year-old Kiev native, has plenty to be nostalgic about. He's now a revered figure in music, but that wasn't always so. Initially self-taught, he took night courses in music while training to become a civil engineer. Later, studies at the Kiev Conservatory led down an avant-garde path. Silvestrov's music was severely criticized in the Soviet Union. His works were rarely heard in his home town, and foreign performances were off-limits to him.

Gradually Silvestrov's name became better known in the West, especially after he made a stylistic shift. In the 1970s he jettisoned the avant-garde techniques for something he would eventually call "metamusic" — short for metaphorical music. While his softened, more tonal language occasionally recalls late romantics like Gustav Mahler, Silvestrov has a sound all his own. And if Nostalghia comes across as some of the composer's lightest music, it weighs disproportionately heavy in the ears.

Simon Smith's Valentin Silvestrov: Piano Sonatas is out now on Delphian Records.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.