Alexander RASKATOV (b. 1953)
Monk’s Music (2005)
Gordon Jones (bass)
Carducci String Quartet
Rec. March 2013, Wathern Abbey, London
Louth Contemporary Music Society LCMS 1302 [54:06]
Alexander Raskatov is difficult to pin down. His music draws on many of the stylistic trends of the late Soviet Russia of his youth. Schnittke’s polystylism is often apparent, especially in A Dog’s Heart, the controversial opera for which he is best known in the UK. Other works tend more towards the religious minimalism of Arvo Pärt, but, unlike Pärt, his music is always grounded, with a strong sense of rhythmic focus and drive.
Monk’s Music is religious and minimalist too, at least in its structuring, which is sectional and with each part based on repeated phrases and note sequences. But it is far from mood music. Much of the writing here is surprisingly aggressive, loud and with biting attacks from each of the players of the string quartet. In fact, the expressive range is very wide, and there are also many quiet contemplative passages. But each section sets a mood and sticks with it. Ideas are not developed, so much as presented as indivisible units that run their course before the next begins. Yet, despite this rigour, the music is rarely austere. Sentiments from Russian Orthodox texts suggest the world of chant, and although none is quoted directly, the disciplined solemnity and fervent devotion of Orthodox ritual in continually evoked.
The work is structured as seven adagio movements for string quartet, each prefaced with a short unaccompanied recitative from the bass singer. The texts are by Starets Silouan, a 19th-century Orthodox elder, each running to just one or two sentences. Comparisons to Haydn are of limited use here. Clearly, the Last Seven Words was an influence, but Raskatov seeks a different kind of devotional music, less contemplative, more engaged.
The musical language of Orthodox Chant is also suggested by the modal nature of the music, although it rarely employs homophonic or chordal textures that might suggest a choir. Instead, we often hear a single melodic line repeated over a deep pedal, or textures built in very direct ways from a clearly audible note pattern. Hard accents and regular repetition often the combine to give the music an emphatically rhythmic feel.
The performances are excellent throughout. Bass Gordon Jones is clearly not from the Orthodox tradition, allowing him to engage with its performing culture, but from the outside, a relationship with Orthodox liturgy that reflects that of the work itself. His voice is deep and powerful, but there is great sensitivity to his singing, with carefully shaped phrases, and a range of dynamic nuance. The Carducci Quartet, who premiered the work, perform with accuracy and conviction. Raskatov writes unusual textures for the quartet, but they are always idiomatic. Even so, the players are often expected to create expansive soundscapes from minimal material, the sheer body of their sound giving the music its weight. Those heavy attacks are also executed effectively, and without ever compromising the evenness of the tone. The recording information suggests that the singer and quartet were recorded separately, but the ambience afforded to both, warm but not overly resonant, sounds very similar, given the impression of a single, unified performance.
Monk’s Music very nearly disappeared without trace. It was written, in 2005, for Valentin Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet. But Berlinsky left the quartet before they had a chance to perform it, and so it lay languishing in a drawer. In 2013, Eamonn Quinn of the Louth Contemporary Music Society approached Raskatov with the idea to perform some of his music in Ireland, and this was the work that was chosen. (Presumably it was at this point that the disappointingly prosaic title was chosen.) Quinn has certainly promoted the music well; the work has now had two public performances and has been released on this excellent commercial recording. And, as the recording demonstrates, the work itself is fully deserving of the commitment, time and resources he has put into it. It is a forthright and uncompromising work, but is highly recommended, especially to those with an interest in the more unusual directions that the Orthodox faith has taken new music in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union.