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Alexander KASTALSKY (1856-1926)
Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes (1917) [39:38]
Doors of Thy Mercy (1897) [4:38]
From my youth (1905) [4:48]
Blessed are they (1900) [5:48]
Protodeacon Leonid Roschko (bass), Marc Andrew Day (tenor), Scott Dispensa (baritone), The Clarion Choir/Steven Fox
rec. St.Jean Baptiste Church, New York, 2018
World Premiere Recordings
NAXOS 8.573889 [55:34]

The year 2018 marks the centennial commemoration of the Armistice. Alexander Kastalsky's response to events was to compose a "service of remembrance for soldiers who have fallen for the common cause". If, like me, you're coming for the first time to this composer, here's a little background. He studied with Tchaikovsky and Taneyev and held a post in the faculty of the Moscow Synodal school of Church Singing from 1887 until 1918, when it was closed by the Bolsheviks. A seminal figure, he spearheaded a new truly national Russian style of church music, skilfully fusing Znamenny chants with counter-voice polyphony derived from Russian choral folk song. Others followed him, including Chesnokov, Grechaninov, Kallinnikov, Tcherepnin and Rachmaninov. Kastalsky's compositional output was largely limited to miniature forms i.e. sacred choruses and choral folk song arrangements.

Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes underwent a lengthy gestation to arrive at the form we have here. The composer had ambitions to write a large-scale Requiem for the fallen of the First World War, combining elements of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox rites. A twelve-movement work resulted for chorus and organ. He could foresee objections from the latter in both the use of organ and combining orthodox and non-Orthodox elements. He redirected his thoughts towards a choral-orchestral work for the concert stage. This was completed and premiered in Petrograd in January 1917. Still not satisfied, he went on to rework sections into this a capella version.

The work is drafted along the lines of an Orthodox Panikhida, which is "a prayer service offered by a priest for the repose of the soul of an Orthodox Christian who has departed this life". Kastalsky has omitted certain prescribed hymns and tweaked the format to suit his aesthetic needs. The composer has carefully selected some intensely moving texts and the music certainly emphasizes their potency and imagery. From beginning to end, one can bathe in the sheer beauty of Kastalsky's captivating score. The work is divided into eleven sections. It opens with Protodeacon Leonid Roschko, a sonorous bass, intoning the Great Litany, in which a series of petitions are answered by the choir. The contrast between the rich bass and the luminous textures of the choir's responses is breathtaking. The Alleluias of the second section initially emerge as if floating in the air, such is the delicacy and finesse achieved. I'm particularly drawn to No. 3 Give rest, O our saviour, in which Steven Fox elicits some fervent singing from the ensemble, evoking a mystical experience. This otherworldly feeling is markedly present in No. 5 I will pour out my prayer. In With the Saints give rest, No. 6, Fox's dynamic control is beyond reproach. There's more power and intensity in the two sections which follow, and the choir respond accordingly. The protodeacon returns, for one last time in section 10, the Triple Litany, where the choir answer the petitions with ‘Lord, have mercy’. The work concludes with a prayer imploring God to remember the departed forever. The tenor Marc Andrew Day and baritone Scott Dispensa, both members of the choir, make brief but beneficial contributions.

Three short liturgical works provide attractive supplements. Doors of Thy Mercy, addressed to the Mother of God, is sung with heartfelt sincerity. From my youth is more fervid. Blessed are they, written in memory of the composer's sister Ekaterina Dmitrievna, emits a reverential tranquillity.

This has been a voyage of discovery for me, as all the works on this release are receiving their world premiere recording. The flawless ensemble of The Clarion Choir, under the inspirational direction of Steven Fox, has been perfectly captured in this demonstration class recording. The balance achieved by the engineers cannot be faulted. The acoustic of St. Jean Baptiste Church, New York confers a captivating aura of resonance, in ideal proportion, upon the compelling music making. I can think of no better advocates for this wonderful music than this superb choral ensemble. The booklet includes the Church Slavonic texts, transliterations and English translations. I shall have no hesitation in nominating this stunning recording as one of my choices of the year.

Stephen Greenbank

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