01 Feb 2016

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

To these grand projects are now added the Green Mass, commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered at the Royal Festival Hall by the orchestra under conductor Vladimir Jurowski. The critical commendation cited in the conductor’s biographical note in the programme — ‘Jurowski seems to have reached the magic state when he can summon a packed house to hear anything he conducts with the LPO, however unfamiliar’ (Geoff Brown) — appeared to be confirmed by the large audience that had gathered in the Hall. Unfortunately, many did not last the course.

Raskatov’s Orthodox faith informs much of his music. With the Green Mass he has composed a sort of ‘environmental counterpart’ to Britten’s War Requiem, with the Latin movements of the Catholic Mass interspersed with additional poetic texts, in five different languages, each dedicated to the beauty of nature. Interviewed by Gavin Dixon in May 2014 ( interview) Raskatov commented: ‘I am from Russia, a land of forests and fields, and I really miss it, the space. Also, I think we have done very bad things to our nature. I don’t belong to the Green Party, but if I were to choose, I would choose this one, because we all have a responsibility for what we will leave the next generation, and that’s a real problem.’

Britten, commissioned to produce a work to celebrate the opening of the new cathedral at Coventry to replace the bomb-damaged original building, used the opportunity to express his deeply held pacifist and humanitarian beliefs. The resulting ‘conversation’ between the nine poems of Wilfred Owen and the traditional Latin Missa pro Defunctis speaks powerfully and directly. A union of private and public convictions, it is surely one of the defining works of the 20th century.

Raskatov’s Green Mass, however, meanders and rambles. Translations of the non-liturgical texts — by William Blake, Georg Trakl, Velimir Khlebnikov, Guillaume Apollinaire and St Francis of Assisi — were displayed above the choir, which was helpful. But, while the use of English, German, Russian, French and Italian may well have served to ‘universalise’ the work (the four soloists each perform one secular movement and come together as an unaccompanied quartet in the prayer, ‘Preghiera’), there seemed little dramatic tension, or even engagement, between the secular and sacred texts — none of the subtle, often ironic, nuances which give the War Requiem its honesty and power.

Raskatov has argued that he hoped to create work which was both ‘theistic’ and ‘pantheistic’, ‘a seemingly incompatible juxtaposition’ that might be reconciled through music: ‘In one drop of water we can see a cosmos … That’s why the most important musical patterns are not fixed by lead a nomadic life between liturgical and secular texts’. The problem is that the score is little more than a colourful quilt of such ‘patterns’, a mosaic of timbral effects and repetitive motifs beneath choral vocal parts which relate the text, line-by-line, in a fairly simple, declamatory manner. There are some imitative passages, and the Gloria and Credo are monumental in scale, but the structures seem directionless, largely because the harmonic language — which has moments of minimalist pseudo-spirituality — does not drive forward.

The Green Mass certainly doesn’t lack ambition, though, and Raskatov throws a panoply of instrumental resources into achieving his mission. The composer’s Missa Byzantina of 2014 had required four percussionists to play triangle, bongos, tom-tom, bass drum, suspended cymbals, cowbells, temple and thai gongs, tubular bells, plate bells, church bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone and marimba. For the Green Mass he has called upon the services of eight percussion players, two guitarists and two keyboard players, and thrown cimbalom, piano, celeste, and electric and bass guitars into the mix. This hugely diverse instrumental palette is employed with care (though I’m not sure I could discern the electric guitar’s contribution …). Just as in the War Requiem Britten juxtaposes a large full orchestra with a chamber ensemble (requiring two separate conductors), so Raskatov creates bespoke sound-worlds for small groupings — after the 44-part ethereality of their accompaniment to Blake’s ‘The Wild Flower’s Song’ the large body of strings seemed infrequently employed en masse — combining percussive colours with double bass glissandi effects, or accompanying the highest lying countertenor lines with low, soft trombones.

In the full orchestral passages, though, the Choir of Clare College Cambridge had trouble projecting from their gallery behind the LPO. They seemed to cope with the work’s demands — and it’s a long sing — showing bravery in the Gloria’s assertive cries (signalled with impressive conviction by Jurowski), commitment in the movement’s upward sliding ‘shrieks’, and piercing brightness in their interjections in the ‘Zangezi’ movement.

The four soloists achieved varying success in making sense of the secular diversions. Tenor Mark Padmore sang with characteristic earnestness in the setting of Trakl’s ‘Lebensalter’, intense but warm-toned about the fraught, detailed orchestral texture. Iestyn Davies’s countertenor was a striking clarion at the top, always melodious as it negotiated the fragmentary melodic gestures of the Blake setting which ranged to registral extremes; Davies demonstrated an impressive focus and flexibility which was equally in evidence in the ‘Benedictus’. Bass Nikolay Didenko had a tough task in communicating the essence of Khlebnikov’s ‘Zangesi’, set as a sustained narration above a medley of coloristic effects, before the brass enlivened proceedings with their celebration of the singer’s pronouncement ‘holy, holy, holy, holy God of hosts’. The composer’s wife Elena Vassilieva — to whom Raskatov has dedicated many vocal works, and who, with countertenor Andrew Watts, shared the role of Sharik in A Dog’s Heart at ENO in 2010 — struggled with the stratospheric tessitura of some parts of the setting of ‘Clotilde’ and was not aided by the unsettling incursions of percussion and tuba.

St Francis’s prayer preceded the ‘Agnus Dei’ but the gentle blend of the four soloists’ voices was insufficient to encourage the patrons in the Hall to stay for the final consolations, ‘I await the resurrection of the Dead … And the life of the world to come’, and a slow exodus began which culminated in the staccato click-clack of one departing concert-goer which made a disconcerting coda to the concluding Amen. Whatever one’s thoughts on the merits or otherwise of the Green Mass, this seemed a disrespectful response to the commitment and accomplishment of the performers and, especially, Juroswki.

In the first half of the concert the LPO gave an astonishingly penetrating performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Jurowski’s discerning insight and imagination revealing Beethoven’s wonder and joy at the beauties of the earth, and allowing us to share the composer’s vision with real and moving freshness.

The first movement certainly awakened ‘pleasant, cheerful feelings’, flowing warmly and fluently, by turns full-toned then transparent. Each strand of the texture was beautifully clear, enabling us to appreciate lovely lyrical playing by the cellos, the flute’s charming meanderings, or a wonderful diminuendo from the horns. With gestures discreet and gentle, Jurowski guided the movement onwards with an easy gait, the centrally placed double basses provides a sure foundation; here was the ‘journey’ which was later denied us in the Green Mass. Kristina Blaumane’s lilting cello solo, in ‘Scene by the Brook’, was transferred from instrument to instrument with naturalness and freedom; there seemed no reason for the seamless melodic conversation to end, but when the final cadence did arrive it was shaped with delicate economy by Jurowski. The strings gently coaxed the folky theme of the ‘Merry gathering of country folk’ into being, but its pulsing energies grew ever more full-toned and rich, generating an excitement which would swell into the darkness of the storm. Here, the dry tension of the opening was released by the fierce brass entry, creating a pressing momentum which Jurowski skilfully transmuted into the calmer raptures of the ‘Shepherd’s Song’, a song which the LPO made a hymn of joy — even the pizzicato passages were deliciously sweet-toned — at once both graceful and noble.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.6 (Pastoral); Alexander Raskatov: Green Mass (world premiere)

Vladimir Jurowski — conductor, Elena Vassilieva — soprano, Iestyn Davies — countertenor, Mark Padmore — tenor, Nikolay Didenko — bass, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Clare College Choir, Cambridge. Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 30th January 2016.