The Ravenna Festival – this year marking 700 years since Dante Alighieri died in the city – commissioned three new works for the celebrations, all based on the great Italian poet's Divina Commedia. Giovanni Sollima’s Six études on Dante’s Inferno was premiered in June, and Tigran Mansurian’s Purgatorio was given its first performance in Yerevan, in a remarkable Festival collaboration with Armenian musicians (it will get an Italian premiere in September). The last part of the tryptic, O luce etterna, based on Paradiso, emerged last Friday, shimmering underneath the jewel-like 6th-century mosaics of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe
© Zani-Casado

It’s the work of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose choral music glimmers and gleams in an almost mystical, trance-like state. His 10-section cantata O luce etterna employed a Ukranian translation of some of Dante’s cantos and words from the 19th-century Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko. He said he had chosen to set words from Paradiso because Dante was, to him, a contemporary poet. “In his Commedia, he proves that if humankind, not only in the private lives of the citizens but also in general politics of the nations, ignores fundamental human values and the commandments of the Bible, it will face misfortune and tragedy.”

The Kiev Chamber Choir travelled to Ravenna to give the world premiere and it’s hard to imagine the work better sung. These young artists perform with deep commitment, an innate sense of balance and ensemble and – for the most part – rock-solid intonation. Everything they sing matters. The sopranos and altos have a beautiful, dark red hue to their voices, something Silvestrov obviously appreciates as he kept their vocal lines well within their comfort zone. Ukrainian basses, of course, are known the world over for their phenomenal ability to maintain low pedal notes, and tenors for their light, easy timbre.

Kiev Chamber Choir
© Zani-Casado

It was regrettable, then, that Silvestrov’s restrained, mezzo-piano writing – challenging though it was – never allowed this choir to truly exhalt. Reined in like thoroughbred racehorses, they were only ever made to trot and never allowed to gallop full speed towards a thrilling, full-throated finish. Of course, this was contemplative music, depicting paradise, so one could hardly expect rousing choruses, but there was little light and shade to the writing and precious little momentum. Paradise hardly felt like a place to which one should aspire.

Silvestrov lays down thick carpets of chordal harmony over which the sopranos sprinkle small figures and gestures, or a soloist steps forward to sing a telling phrase, but little happens by way of development. The pace is glacial. Even when, towards the close, a pianist emerged from the choir to play some arpeggios, it did little to alter the mood of calm serenity.

Mikola Hobdych
© Zani-Casado

Earlier, we had heard the first performance of another Silvestrov work, In Memoriam – his own personal Requiem. It employed very similar techniques to O luce etterna: thick clots of harmony moving very slowly with pages of wordless deep notes for the long-suffering basses. Tranquil beauty pervaded the entire piece, but this felt more like an exercise in choral painting than a universal expression of deep mourning.

None of my carping should take away from the achievement of conductor Mykola Hobdych and his brilliant choir in making this new music come to quiet life. I just hope they sang their heads off in the coach to the airport...