Since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and partly owing to the passing of major figures such as Alfred Schnittke, there has been something of a shakeup in the hierarchy of just who are considered the top composers of the post-Soviet period. Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose 70th birthday is celebrated in 2007, has risen to near the top, but that has not done much for his reputation in the United States, where his work remains practically unknown. Jenny Lin's Hänssler Classic album Nostalghia -- Valentin Silvestrov: Piano Works may well do his stateside reputation some good -- certainly, it does very well by him musically. All of this music, excepting the Sonata No. 1 of 1972, was composed after 1995 and some of it expressly for Lin. In these "late" period works, Silvestrov has adopted a wistful, nostalgic tone that hearkens back to conventional tonality, but his ideas are distanced from one another using atmospheric and emotionally pregnant pauses, in a manner akin to Mompou's Música Callada or late Liszt. One cannot trot out the old postmodern critic's cliché that the "music is nostalgic without being sentimental," as Silvestrov allows himself a measure of sentimentality here -- some of this music would fit in a parlour of the nineteenth century. However, in addition to employing silences to break things up, Silvestrov also adds techniques such as Lin's drumming on the piano case to create a faint, timpani roll-like swell, and much of what is demonstrably "sentimental" is presented in a reflective, half-remembered fashion.
The Sonata No. 1 provides a fascinating contrast with the rest -- while it is still in agreement with the openly spatial and relatively naked piano textures, its tonal language is of a markedly different kind from the rest, being informed by serial gestures if not serial in technique. The Three Waltzes provide thumbnail sketches of the Second Vienna School triumvirate of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, little pieces evocative of their styles, but sounding, in the end, more like Silvestrov. Likewise, The Messenger -- 1996, which was written in memory of Silvestrov's wife, features a blasted remnant of Mozart shot full of holes, and beautifully captures the impression of a vignette image of someone who has been loved and lost.
Lin, who is known for her great versatility and understanding of a wide range of music, some of it being of a virtuosic and difficult nature, shows that she can also exercise great restraint when it's called for. In music where the vagaries of memory and the weight of past impressions are a central element, she is skillfully able to project a sense of space and distance into her approach -- throughout Nostalghia, the precise sound that Silvestrov seeks and its placement in time is obtained artfully and seemingly without effort by Lin. This disc has a strong potential for general appeal given its late-night, quiet- time milieu and great seriousness of purpose. If you have long sought contemporary music that can move you and make you think, yet does not consist of cloying minimalism or seem wrought from a bed of nails, then Nostalghia -- Valentin Silvestrov: Piano Works may be very well what you are looking for.