Before receiving the NAXOS recording of Alexander Kastalsky’s 1917 choral composition Vechnaya Pamiat Geroyam (Memory Eternal) I had never heard the name of this composer nor had I had many opportunities to listen to any Russian Orthodox Liturgical music. Now, thanks to the exquisite work of The Clarion Choir, led by its conductor Steven Fox I have instantly become a convert not to the Eastern Orthodox Faith itself but to its mesmerizingly beautiful music.

Alexander Kastalsky wrote the music comprised in tracks 1 through 11 of this CD as a posthumous homage to the more than 16 million military and civilian fallen during the terrible years of what then came to be termed “The war to end all wars.” Kastalsky got the Soviets to allow this music to be performed in a memorial concert in Petrograd not long after the end of the war. His intention in renaming the streamlined version of his original was to avoid possible objections from both the Orthodox and Communist Party Hierarchies. He combined chorus and organ in an unusual pairing and Bratskoye Pominoveniye (The Fraternal Commemoration) went off without a hitch.

But the composer wanted to return to his original setting of these religious texts and thus he reworked his composition by doing away with the organ, an instrument never heard in the Orthodox Church. Using a refined compositional technique he had acquired as a student of Tchaikovsky, Kastalsky deftly juxtaposed the chanting of a Deacon – Bass Leonid Roschko in this recording – to choral polyphony – The Clarion Choir here – to create a hauntingly beautiful musical tapestry.

The choir is astounding. Inky-voiced basses anchor the fluctuating harmonies pitted against a ringing lyrical tenor section. A sterling fifteen-strong alto and soprano grouping capable of comfortably switching from vibrato-less hushed singing to throbbing outbursts in the upper range collectively delivers a cohesive sound in flawlessly pronounced Slavonic.

Three choral works augment this priceless collection recorded in New York in 2018, impeccably produced and engineered by Martha de Francisco and enhanced with liner notes by Vladimir Morossan. Steven Fox is the music director of The Clarion Choir, as well as The Clarion Orchestra and the Cathedral Choral Society of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Heartfelt thanks go to him for his enterprising leadership and to Naxos Records for continued contributions from obscure though rich pockets of the classical music canon.

The choral/orchestral version given in 1917 was not the final version of Vechnaya Pamiat Geroyam. The Clarion Choir, in collaboration with D.C.’s Cathedral Choir Society and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s led by Leonard Slatkin will give the World Premiere of the choral/orchestral version in D.C. on Sunday, October 21 at the National Cathedral.

Rafael de Acha