Until Naxos took up his cause, Alexander Dmitriyevich Kastalsky (1856-1926) was little more than a footnote in the history of Russian music. A student of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, he went on to become a composer primarily of choral music and, especially after the Revolution, a passionate folklorist.

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The booklet announces that Kastalsky’s Requiem for Fallen Brothers “stands as the only large-scale choral-orchestral work written specifically in response to the unprecedented loss of life and devastation brought about by the First World War”. That’s not entirely true, as anyone who knows John Foulds’ A World Requiem will affirm, but Foulds’ work premiered in 1923 so Kastalsky, who started work on his commemoration as early as 1914 and had his premiere in 1917 Petrograd, certainly got there first.

Like Foulds, Kastalsky wanted to be inclusive, drawing widely on liturgical traditions across the full range of the Allied Forces. Thus, Orthodox Russian music rubs shoulders with Serbian, there are influences from Roman Catholic France and Italy, and even a texts from Anglican Britain. An early version of Kastalsky’s vision in 12 movements for chorus and organ has already been recorded by Naxos, but the two works are very different beasts and this 17-movement version for orchestra, chorus and soloists is a far grander concept, arguably more exciting, and highly individual in content.

Kastalsky’s basic compositional sound should be familiar to anyone who enjoys the choral music of Rachmaninov or Grechaninov, but what stands out here is his restless desire to meld such eclectic stimuli into a cohesive whole. Opening with tolling bells straight of Boris Godunov, the melodic line of the first section is taken from a well-known Russian Orthodox funeral kontakion. We progress though the regular movements of the Requiem Mass, the text switching from Latin to English to Russian (the composer left the choice of language to the performers). There’s an imposing Rex Tremendae, an exciting Confutatis, and a touching Lacrymosa that quotes the medieval Dies Irae theme. The soprano aria Beati mortui glitters with Byzantine percussion and orchestral piano, while a movement entitled “Interludium. From the Direction of the Japanese Troops, Gentle Music Is Heard” undulates with a gentle pentatonic melody.

It may have its less convincing moments, but if Chopin’s Funeral March in counterpoint with “Rock of Ages” feels perhaps a bridge too far (Kastalsky added them, along with Joseph Barnby’s “Hark! hark, my soul!” in 1917 after the Americans came in), there’s so much here to enjoy and plenty of variety to engage the attention over the work’s one-hour span.

The recording is taken from 2018 performances at Washington National Cathedral, and given the resonant acoustic emerges with surprising clarity. The excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s supports no less than four choirs under the authoritative direction of Leonard Slatkin. Of the two soloists, Joseph Charles Beutel’s solid bass baritone is powerful and sombre. By way of contrast, Anna Dennis’s warm soprano offers several real pick-me-up moments.

Kastalsky apparently imagined a theatrical element to the work’s presentation, one involving massed units from the Allied armies, nurses, clergymen, a cardinal, the whole to be punctuated by trumpet calls, drumbeats and even the sounds of artillery. “In the distance one can hear the sobs and lamentations of the widows and mothers who have lost their sons; from the direction of the Asian armies one hears strains of Japanese and Hindu melodies,” he wrote. Wow! There’s no evidence of that ever making the stage – pan-nationalism and the coming together of world religions was not really the Bolsheviks’ bag – but in the meantime this fine discovery makes for a fascinating substitute.

Composer: Alexander Kastalsky
Works: Requiem for Fallen Brothers
Performers: Joseph Charles Beutel b-bar, Anna Dennis s, Orchestra Of St. Luke’s, Cathedral Choral Society, The Clarion Choir, Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, Kansas City Chorale/Leonard Slatkin
Label: Naxos 8574245

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