Unlikely as it may sound, Russian composer Alexander Raskatov is rapidly becoming a regular fixture in County Louth. His Monk’s Music here received its second performance, this time in Drogheda following the première last year in Dundalk. And in the mean time, the Louth Contemporary Music Society has released a commercial recording of the work to great acclaim.

Alexander Raskatov © Philippe Gontier
Alexander Raskatov
© Philippe Gontier

Eamonn Quinn, the motivating force behind LCMS, organises new music events in the county on roughly a bi-monthly basis. This concert was presented as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, now in its tenth year. And while Monk’s Music itself is an excellent introduction to Raskatov’s music, it was supplemented this evening with some of his shorter works, performed by the composer at the piano and his wife, the soprano Elena Vassilieva.

A sense of focus and concentration unites Raskatov’s works, transcending the often considerable aesthetic differences between them. Orthodox liturgical singing has played an increasingly important role in his music in recent decades, and the most obvious result is a broadly consonant (though not specifically tonal) harmonic language. He also has a more abrasive, even sarcastic side, as demonstrated by his opera A Dog’s Heart, which was performed at ENO in 2010. That style seems to co-exist with Raskatov’s more devout music, rarely heard together in the same piece, but both clearly emanating from the same musical voice.

The song cycle that opened this evening’s concert, To Those Who have been Healed, dates from 1980, towards the end of Raskatov’s studies at the Moscow Conservatory. Although the harmonies here are often dissonant, or at least astringent, the music clearly points towards the more reflective style of his later years. Vassilieva performs the songs in such an assured and idiomatic style, that it is hard to believe they were not written with her voice in mind. Despite her advancing years, she has a clear and pure tone in the highest soprano registers. She also has an impressive ability to take the dynamics right down to a whisper on the high notes, while retaining every essential quality in her tone, quite crucial here as this is an effect Rasktov regularly employs. Sadly, texts were not provided in the programme, but for anybody with a basic grasp of Russian they came through with impressive clarity, thanks in equal part to Vassilieva’s diction and Raskatov’s sensitive settings.

Recordarde is a solo piano work from 2006. It is dedicated to Irina Schnittke, while also very consciously referencing the music of her late husband. As in much of Schnittke’s chamber music, the piano here makes regular tangential but evocative references to the sounds of Orthodox chant and Russian bell-ringing. But the work relies more on repetition than in any of Schnittke’s music, an indicator perhaps of the more extreme, obsessive even, aesthetic through which Raskatov expresses his faith. But however obsessive the music might be, Raskatov’s own performance was relaxed and sensitive, making the music much more approachable than the dots on the paper might suggest.

Angel’s Read Your Book, a song cycle from 2003, is very much in the style with which Raskatov has become associated in recent years. The vocal line is varied and nimble, employing a very wide tessitura and an array of Sprechstimme-like devices. The accompaniment, in contrast, is more restrained, supportive and richly-voiced, but consonant and seemingly triadic throughout. Vassilieva’s performance here was excellent, employing surreal theatrical gestures to underline the (again crystal-clear) text, and again demonstrating impressive agility as the music jumps around from the very lowest to the very highest notes. It was touching to read in the programme that Raskatov has dedicated this work to Eamonn Quinn, a gesture of gratitude for the impressive promotion he has received here in Louth.

Carducci Quartet © Andy Holdsworth Photography
Carducci Quartet
© Andy Holdsworth Photography

Monk’s Music sets short texts by the Orthodox monk Starets Siluan for unaccompanied bass voice, which are interspersed with adagio movements for string quartet à la Haydn’s Seven Last Words. Raskatov himself is keen to play down the Haydn comparison, but actually his music works on a very similar level. Like Haydn’s movements, each here takes an emotion and explores it in some depth. That gives a sense of unity that transcends harmonic or thematic developments – again it is an obsessive quality, but in a context where such obsession is wholly appropriate. The Carducci Quartet gave the première last year and went on to make the first recording. Their playing this evening was just as good as on the CD: as directed and focused as the music itself, uncompromised by the fiendish technical demands, and as dramatically compelling as the work requires. Bass Robert Macdonald took over from Gordon Jones in the solo role. He brought richness and warmth to the part. He sometimes struggled a little with the pronunciation, and his falsetto doesn’t quite match Vassilieva’s effortless upper range, but the sense of engagement and humanity he brought to these short recitations dispelled any suspicions of pious austerity.

Another triumph for the Louth Contemporary Music Society, then, and a concert well received by the impressively large and diverse local audience.