Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

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

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 (
) 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

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

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
, 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.

image_description=Alexander Raskatov [Photo by MF.Pissart]
product_title=Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Alexander Raskatov [Photo by MF.Plissart]