The Hilliard Ensemble

Prayers and Praise: Vocal Music by Alexander Raskatov

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Russian music since the fall of the Soviet Union has often been vibrant, with composers drawing on previously forbidden traditions in unique personal ways. (One wonders why fiction has apparently been less successful in general.) Composer Alexander Raskatov draws in these extraordinary works, for instance, on Russian Orthodox church music, and the two works are settings of liturgical texts. Yet this is very far from being a slightly updated version of Rachmaninov's sacred music. Rather, it's a bit like a George Crumb interpretation of Russian choral music. The two works on the album, both for male quartets (one with strings, one with optional bells, and there are no bells here), are somewhat different from one another, although they're recognizably products of the same pen. Obikhod (2002-2003), a word meaning a book of common Russian Orthodox chants, is filled with odd vocal effects (one of them, for instance, is a kind of vocal shiver) that are strategically deployed to illustrate words in the text. Transliterated Russian texts might have been helpful here, but even those without a word of Russian will get an idea of what's going on, and the effect is magical: dissonant yet serene. Praise (1998) instead extends the performance of spoken liturgy. Some of the texts are spoken, but most of them are delivered in quasi-ritual incantatory vocal gestures. It would be hard to conceive of a better group of performers for this music than the Hilliard Ensemble, for whom Praise was written, and indeed one wonders if the music would be quite so compelling if sung by garden-variety ensembles. But that's a question for another day, and countertenor David James pulls off some impressive howls in a very difficult part. Challenge Classics' engineers, working on home ground in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, match what the singers and musicians are doing step by step.

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