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Alexander RASKATOV (b. 1953)
Obikhod (2002/3) [26:16]
Praise (1998) [22:23]
The Hilliard Ensemble
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Gordon Nikolic
rec. 10-14 March 2011, Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

Alexander Raskatov may not be a household name, but with substantial performances, and numerous appearances on recordings his music is something which seems likely to crop up with increasing frequency, though you will note that his name gets a poor billing on the cover of this release.
Both of the works on this disc set liturgical texts, and the title of the opener, Obikhod, refers to the Russian Orthodox book of common chants. Rakatov in fact uses texts from the Trebnik or Book of Needs, words needed for religious ceremonies, including rites for the departed, the use of which here gives the work the feel of a requiem.
There are some remarkable effects here, starting with the voices use of trilli or wide vibrato, something none of us expected when putting on a CD featuring the Hilliard Ensemble. Obikhod is striking, dark and gritty. The central movement, disarmingly titled Affetuoso, is filled with heavy percussive ‘clunks’ and unnerving throaty bass-string gestures, something like the lower strings of a piano being sawn in half. The harmonic language of other movements has sequential logic and great expressive power, but always with unsettling clusters and shafts of drama interjected by the strings. Nothing is straightforward or smooth. Parallel movement lends the music a feeling of an ancient core, but there is nothing medieval or meditative here. There is a temptation to make comparisons with Schnittke, and this is perhaps Raskatov’s closest soulmate if you were looking for one, but too many associations are likely to mislead. The gripping close of the final Larghetto certainly has Schnittke’s sense of impermanence and decay. The moments of beauty in this work are more likely to make your brain crawl than result in revelatory gasps, and the strangeness of the language is an added level of ambiguity for us Western Europeans. These texts are given in English in the booklet, but you won’t be hearing a ‘sung in English’ version of either of these pieces any time soon, and if you do it won’t be half as good.
Praise is the earlier of these two pieces, and in this case the texts come from various services of the Byzantine rite. I can understand why the producers wanted the work with the greatest impact first on the CD, but if you are into programming your player I would put Praise first. Without the orchestra this piece has a stripped-down feel, which is unfair. As it stands in its own right, the vocal writing of Praise is filled with the complexities of close harmonies and dissonances, colour and textual effects. It serves to introduce us to some of the effects in Obikhod which can be harder to pick out as it emerges from the rich sound of its accompaniment, though the balance is excellent. With plenty of free treatment of the texts it is tricky to know where you are in the movements, but educated guesses can be made. As with Schnittke’s Penitential Psalms there is a sensitivity and connection between words and music which has its own expressive weight. It may not always be easy and you won’t come away with tunes to hum, but once heard it is hard to put these statements aside. Raskatov comes from an entirely different tradition from more easily accessible vocal composers such as Eric Whitacre and Gabriel Jackson, and one suspects that, put in the same room, his music would eat theirs whole. Respectfully indeed but still, eat them whole.
There are two regrets to he had from this release. One is the relatively short playing time which could no doubt not be helped. The other is the non-appearance of the ‘optional bells’ in Praise. I think that, after the full dark splendour of the orchestral Obikhod there was nothing optional about those bells.
Dominy Clements