A charming handwritten note in the hand of the composer Alexander Raskatov graces the booklet of Louth Contemporary Music Society’s new release Monk’s Music. Raskatov’s monumental work for string quartet and bass voice, Seven Words by Starets Silouan, was completed in 2005 but following the death of its commissioner, cellist Valentin Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet, the work was never performed. ‘Finally the first performance takes place in Ireland,’ wrote the composer in advance of the work’s premiere in February 2013, ‘I am waiting for my own discovery of this mysterious and so attractive country.’
Modelled on Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, Raskatov’s work sets seven stanzas from the writings of Starets Silouan (1866–1938), a Russian monk also known as Saint Silouan the Athonite due to his spiritual development on Mount Athos in Greece. ‘Look upon my affliction, and lighten my darkness,’ intones Gordon Jones of the Hilliard Ensemble with all the solemnity of a Russian Orthodox Church singer at one point in the piece; Jones’s incantations fall like focal calls to prayer between the Carducci Quartet’s tantalising enterprises into the unknown.
Born 1954 in Moscow, Alexander Rastakov was once described by Alfred Schnittke as ‘one of the most interesting composers of his generation’. Having studied at the Moscow Conservatoire, his music is certainly influenced by the Western classical music tradition, especially Stravinsky and Webern, but his musical roots also stretch from Slavonic folk music to both the Jewish and Orthodox Russian sacred music traditions.
Listeners to Monk’s Music are treated to the full kaleidoscope of Rastakov’s writing, often in the space of a few bars. The opening movement — centred around the text ‘My soul is longing for God, and I seek Him in tears’ — is a model example. Following Jones’s serene introduction, the Carducci Quartet enter with richly dissonant chords. No sooner is this taking hold, however, and the lightness and innocence of Raskatov’s writing comes through, with delicately ornamented melodies floating above an effortless cello ostinato.
In Raskatov’s music, every shift in texture becomes a moment of revelation. His musical world, as described by The Irish Times after the long-awaited premiere of Seven Words by Starets Silouan in St Nicholas’ Church, Dundalk, is one in which ‘a simple pulsation, a flutter, a slide, a shift from consonance to dissonance, or even a silence can become an all-consuming event’.
The British composer Ivan Moody, whose insightful notes accompany this release, points out that this edge-of-your-seat listening experience resonates with the work’s spiritual inspiration. ‘Its dramatic quality seeks to convey precisely the anguish as well as the seraphic ecstasy in the Saint’s spiritual life,’ writes Moody. As such, Monk’s Music is a release that trancends its own technical brilliance to become a truly illuminating thing to experience; here, Raskatov’s music itself is a mysterious and seductive country to explore.
Presented with funding from the Arts Council Music Recording Scheme 2012.
Thanks Aleksandr Raskatov, Alexander Van Ingen, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Matt Denton, Emma Denton, Michelle Fleming, Gordon Jones. Ivan Moody, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Create Louth, Music Network and The Arts Council.