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Alexander KASTALSKY (1856-1926)
Requiem for Fallen Brothers (1914-17)
Anna Dennis (soprano); Joseph Beutel (bass-baritone)
Cathedral Choral Society
Clarion Choir/Steven Fox
Saint Tikhon Choir/Benedict Sheehan
Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy
Orchestra of St Luke’s/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2018, Washington National Cathedral
NAXOS 8.574245 [63:57]

This is a very special release of a significant, attractive and moving choral work, here receiving its world premiere recording. Its neglect is almost incomprehensible given the range of music and its quality; the explanation lies mostly in the political events of 1917. The premiere of the original version, in 14 movements, for chorus and organ – to which the composer later added three additional movements – took place in January 1917, in St. Petersburg. Political turmoil, ending with the Bolshevik revolution, precluded further performance. Under Bolshevism, performances of sacred music were banned.

Kastalsky is not a well-known composer. A student of Moscow Conservatory, he worked from 1887 with the Mosco Synodal School, becoming director of the Choir until the Revolution led to a merger with the Conservatory. Before 1918 Kastalsky concentrated on religious choral works, but subsequently devoted himself to folklore, as in his choral Village Symphony of 1923, and Rural Work in Folksongs (1924).

The Requiem is not designed as a liturgical work, though most of the elements of the traditional Latin requiem are present (the Dies Irae is not set in full, and there are no prayers of commendation or committal), but there are other elements interspersed. There are hymns – including ‘Rock of Ages’, but with elements of Chopin’s Funeral March in an almost Ivesian blend and words by Father Faber, as well as scriptural extracts. The Fallen Brothers are those of all the First World Wars allies, hence elements are drawn from the traditions of different nations. Rex Tremendae (track 3) uses the Latin text, set to Russian and Catholic melodies, Ingemesco (4) uses and English melody and Irons English translation), while Confutatis (5) is in Russian to an English melody. Beati mortui (No.8) has the text in Latin and French, to a Romanian melody. The second Interludium (16) is a hymn to Indra, set for a textless male chorus, and a tribute to the many Indian soldiers who fell, while the first Interludium represents the Japanese allies.

The danger of such eclecticism is to fall into pastiche, but Kastalsky avoids this trap – the blend is no less effective than in Britten’s War Requiem or in Tippet. Kastalsky left some choices of language up to the performers (his original conception was for a semi-staged work) but Slatkin has wisely opted for the greater variety. (Kastalsky also produced a version for unaccompanied choir, Memory Eternal of The Fallen Heroes, using only Church Slavonic – available on Naxos 8573889 with the Clarion Choir directed by Steven Fox).

Performances are committed, carefully prepared and idiomatic. The soloists are good, choirs generally clear in enunciation, Leonard Slatkin as reliable as always. Congratulations to Naxos for very informative notes and translations.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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