Van Morrison
The Healing Game

When you've put out 27 studio albums, as Belfast's finest has, your audience checks out every new release to gauge the subtle differences with past work. Here's how The Healing Game stacks up to Morrison's past triumphs:

1. Anyone who counted how many times Morrison sang "you breathe in, you breathe out" on Astral Weeks' "Beside You" will note that not only is Morrison repeating himself less and less in his old age, but now he only does it in the company of others. On "The Burning Ground," he and his background vocalists sing "dump the Jew" a mere six times.

2. Morrison once gave the boys "Cleaning Windows" something to sing about. On "The Burning Ground," crematorium workers finally get their day in song. Flame on!

3. When Morrison sang "I used to be disgusted" on "Domino," he invented Elvis Costello. On "Rough God Goes Riding," he brings flabbergasted into the pop vernacular. ("I was flabbergasted by the headlines.") Expect Counting Crows to be flabbergasted any minute now.

4. Never vain, Morrison is the only singer who allowed himself to look piss-awful on album covers: Remember his sweaty old geezer look on Poetic Champions Compose? His suave new look is somewhere between the Penguin and Secret Squirrel, but only Morrison can sing "I can't lose this weight" and be unconcerned if his audience takes it metaphorically or not. That takes balls. Old, fat balls!

5. Like most of Morrison's high-caliber output, this album ain't Astral Weeks, but it ain't that crummy double-live Night in San Francisco, either.

--Serene Dominic

Valentin Silvestrov
Symphony No. 5/Postludium
(Sony Classical)

You're a classical-music fan. You've got a CD of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, the 1992 version by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta. You helped turn that particular take on Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" into one of the best-selling CDs ever to wow the classical kingdom. You bought it because of the way the piece flowed, its near-constant movement of rising and falling notes, at once mournful and soothing. Or perhaps it was the way Upshaw, then a relatively unknown soprano, put emotion to Gorecki's images of the hell his native Poland suffered during World War II.

Or maybe you bought the CD because everyone else did.
In any event, you should know of a recent release just waiting to become the next Gorecki. It's Valentin Silvestrov's Symphony No. 5, performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. This disc is every bit as arousing as Gorecki's Third, and equally rewarding. It just doesn't have the same buzz. Yet.

The two composers have similarities. The Ukraine-born Silvestrov, like Gorecki, was reared in the folds of the Iron Curtain. They are roughly the same age (Silvestrov was born in 1939; Gorecki, 1933) and they both noodled around with different styles before finding their best voice in hypnotic, tonal music. Silvestrov's works have been especially eclectic, ranging from avant-garde techniques to unremarkable song-cycles more reminiscent of Schubert than Schsnberg.

But in writing those otherwise anonymous songs, Silvestrov made a discovery. He noticed that he ended each piece with sounds that ultimately overshadowed the notes that came before. And so he began to focus not so much on the way a song grows, but on the way it reacts. From there, Silvestrov developed the idea of "frozen time" music that had no beginning and no end. He came up with a single, arched movement to shape such musical motion, and he put it to work with boffo results on Symphony No. 5.

The piece starts out--and, yes, ends--with meandering strings that feel like they're searching in slow, cautious turns. It's a beautifully tentative sound, like a soundtrack to a sci-fi flick about astronauts investigating an alien planet. A lighter mood follows, with a subtle, cascading melody that would be sticky sweet if horns didn't appear beneath the swirl. As with the earlier movements, the melody here is a succession of similar note patterns repeated with slight variations. Midway through the piece, the feathery curtains blow away and the cautious tone returns, but with more melody. The plucks of a prominent harp keep the scene quiet and hopeful.

Then almost exactly at the symphony's halfway mark, an assault of thunder rolls in. The salvos hit in the form of piano chords from featured performer Alexei Lubimov, who rumbles alongside percussion, bottom-heavy strings, and some sharp horns that flash random, atonal bursts. As quickly as it came up, the blaring noise goes away. The tentative melody appears like a wet breeze, the hushed, contemplative mood still ringed by an echo of distant roars. The symphony then floats to the finish, the careful nature of the melody's pacing eased somewhat, but not enough to keep things from feeling nicely ambiguous and important. A wonderful piece.

No. 5 having drifted off, the CD closes with another piece, Postludium, a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra. Here Silvestrov demonstrates his begin-at-the-end technique by composing a noisy, jumbled first movement that comes off like a set of dishes dropped down a flight of stairs. Balance is quickly regained, but a rising series of chords, followed by ever-increasing rumbles, maintains the off-kilter mood. The second movement is nervous and skittish, as if the notes are waiting for something to happen.

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