Alexander Kastalsky was a student of Tchaikovsky and a mentor to Rachmaninov, becoming director of the Moscow Synodal School until the Bolshevik regime banned all sacred music, including the extraordinary Requiem for Fallen Brothers which consequently lay forgotten for over a century. The Requiem is a rich and varied mosaic that honors those who perished in the First World War, poignantly combining Orthodox and Gregorian chant with hymns from the allied nations, even including Rock of Ages. This unprecedented and peerless monument to those who made the ultimate sacrifice was acclaimed on its 1917 premiere as a ‘uniquely Russian requiem that… gave musical voice to the tears of many nations.’ This is a world premiere recording.
Alexander Dmitrievich Kastalsky was born in Moscow on 16 November 1856 and died there on 17 December 1926. A student of Taneyev and Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, his works stood to one side from the secular musical world. Rachmaninov saw Kastalsky as his teacher and was influenced by the older man whose presence can be sensed in the Vespers and in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom—also recorded by Charles Bruffy and his Kansas choir. Kastalsky became a leading light in a nineteenth century renaissance of the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. With Smolensky and Grechaninov, Kastalsky was part of fresh passion for Russian devotional music. Tragically for Kastalsky, this was to collide with the Bolshevik ban on sacred music. The extraordinary imaginative strengths of the choral-orchestral Requiem for Fallen Brothers were disregarded. Even so it is reported that the Kastalsky Requiem travelled far and wide. It was, for example, performed in Birmingham by that city’s Festival Choir on 22 November 1917 conducted by Henry Wood, a fervent Russophile.
The towering Requiem lay in oblivion for more than a century despite its fresh and tragic inspiration: it recalled those who perished in the First World War. The score is affluent in ideas, both vocal and orchestral. Across seventeen segments (here separately accessible) the work accommodates a range of well-recognised spiritual references. Without falling into the trap of a variegated collage it finds a place for Orthodox and Gregorian chant and mixes in material from the allied nations. In tr. 14 Kastalsky weaves Chopin’s ‘funeral march’ and the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ with the same mastery we find in Bridge’s Sir Roger de Coverley and Holst’s Fantasia on The Dargason. The more one experiences this major work, whether through this fine recording under Leonard Slatkin or in the hands of Evgeny Svetlanov, the more one places it alongside other known Great War humanist monuments like Delius’s Requiem and John Foulds’ World Requiem. To this group, can be added John Ireland’s These Things Shall Be and perhaps also a work quite unknown, Julius Harrison’s Great War tribute Requiem of Archangels. Kastalsky’s commitment towards church music spread to a work kindred to the Requiem but this time for unaccompanied choir. It was a short version; only 40 minutes as against the 64 minutes of the present Requiem. This a cappella work came under the title Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes.
The Requiem strides forward with slight pauses between sections. In terms of sweep and incident it coheres well. Proceedings begin with seraphic choir and tolling bells, all suggestive of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The Kyrie (2) continues the seraphic treatment but is underpinned with tenderly stabbing strings. The whole rises to a searching intensity that recalls Rachmaninov’s The Bells. As this section closes Kastalsky refers obliquely back to the clangour of the first movement. The dark griping of the brass in the Rex tremendae (4) paves the way for a soprano solo in Ingemisco (4) and for Beethovenian protest and struggle in the Confutatis. Here Kastalsky deploys words from Pushkin’s poem John of Damascus; a text that also drew Taneyev. The Lacrymosa (6) has the two soloists’ voices mingling amid a choral haze. Mixed in we hear tendrils of the Dies Irae. In Domine Jesu (7) the scent of incense is strong against the treble of silvery bells. Beati mortui makes use of the sound of sleigh bells and, not for the first time, fleetingly suggests The Bells—the latter a work dating from four years before Kastalsky started work on the Requiem. The Hostias (9) blends the harp with the rich tone of the choir in a heaven-invoking carol. In the first of two Interludia (10), Japanese music is limned in to represent participation of the Japanese army in the conflict. Trumpet fanfares impel and crown the grand statement that is the Sanctus (11). The coaxing and soothing ways of the Agnus Dei (12) usher in What Sweetness in This World (13) with its commanding piano part and bass-baritone darkness. Its fruity solo trumpet makes you think of Holst’s Dirge for Two Veterans. The Dies Irae returns in mists for the Kyrie eleison (15)—an exercise in slow-stepping serenity. There’s unhurried atmospheric ululation in the second Interludium: Hymn to Indra, calling to mind, if only in choice of subject, Holst’s Sanskrit works. The Requiem ends with the bells: part hugely imposing and celebratory and part seeming to reach out towards apotheosis from the bleak fog of chaos. The superb echoing resonance of the church acoustic is very present as the finale rings out.
This fully-fleshed out Requiem has a tremendously dignified tread, noble grief and imperious ways. Naxos have done well by Kastalsky. This treatment extends to a twenty-page booklet with all the sung text. The layout has the Italian, Latin, Greek and Russian words with English translation in parallel throughout.
Requiem for Fallen Brothersby Alexandr Kastalsky Performer:
Anna Dennis (Soprano),
Joseph Beutel (Bass Baritone)
Orchestra of St. Luke's,
Kansas City Chorale,
Cathedral Choral Society
Period: 20th Century Written: Russia