Soon after his triumph in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Dmitri Hvorostovsky launched his recording career with a tremendous disc of Verdi and Tchaikovsky arias which, like a fox marking his territory, set out his stall of repertoire that would soon have opera houses around the world competing to engage him. Soon afterwards, however, a recital disc emerged which showed us another facet of his art – Russian song. That disc, entitled ‘Russian Romances’ contained a programme shared between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, composers whose songs have formed the backbone of many an Hvorostovsky recital ever since. Burning passions and introspective gloom are key ingredients in the Russian song repertoire and nobody does it better than the silver-haired Siberian.
The opening song on that Philips recital was Tchaikovsky’s ‘Again, as before, I am alone’, the final song of his op.73 set, itself the final set of romances Tchaikovsky wrote, from 1893, the year of his death. That sense of brooding tipping over into despair arrests the listener vividly. Twenty-one years on, having shifted labels from Philips to Ondine (via a series of disappointingly recorded discs for Delos), Hvorostovsky returns to the same song on this new album, only this time presented as the full op.73 set of romances. Time has preserved his instrument remarkably well; his baritone retains its burnt umber colouring and his almost legendary ability to spin out long phrases on a single breath is still there. There came a time when those long phrases would be separated by a very audible gasp for air (more so in operatic repertoire where Hvorostovsky can sometimes be tempted to force his voice too hard and too loud), but happily none too intrusive here.
In the opening two songs, the poet is regretful at not declaring his love when he had the chance. Hvorostovsky scales his baritone down to a hushed confessional rueing those missed opportunities. Night, darkness and sunset dominate the mood of these six songs, with a taste of bitter resignation never far away. ‘In this moonlit night’, the third song and the one which gives this disc its title, the poet can wait no longer to speak his love, Hvorostovsky rising to its passionate heights gloriously; Tchaikovsky’s vocal writing fits him like a glove.
The mood darkens even further with Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Hvorostovsky has recorded this cycle before (and there was also a Proms performance released commercially), but both in its orchestral garb. Here, it is down to the skill of the pianist to convey the atmosphere of the four contrasting songs, where Death comes a-calling; Ivari Ilja is a sensitive accompanist, not always the most dramatic colourist, but reliable. Hvorostovsky offers characterization enough for both of them, as Death claims first the child (in an Erlkönig-like lullaby), a young woman (Death masquerading as a bridegroom), a drunken peasant caught in a blizzard and, finally, soldiers on the battlefield, Death the Field Marshal. The biting irony in his delivery of that final song is superb, culminating in his voice ringing out thrillingly as Death triumphs over the whole battalion.
After the Mussorgsky, there’s something quite old-fashioned about the six songs of Sergei Taneyev which conclude the disc, especially the fastidious counterpoint he employs in the piano accompaniment in a song such as ‘Minuet’, Op.26/9. The songs here are well chosen to provide variety of mood, from the dramatic ‘Winter Path’, all clattering hooves and jingling harnesses to accompany a desperate journey, to the reflective ‘Stalactites’ which hang “like frozen rows of bitter tears”, providing ample opportunity for Hvorostovsky to lavish his velvet legato across the vocal line. The agitation of ‘Anxiously beats the heart’ closes the set with élan.
They are recorded in the flattering acoustic of Moscow State Conservatory’s Great Hall, where there is a pleasing bloom around both voice and piano. Hvorostovsky fans need not hesitate for an instant, but anyone interested in Russian song will want to investigate this inventively programmed, and stylishly performed, recital.
Tchaikovsky: Six songs, op.73
Mussorgsky: Songs and Dance of Death
Taneyev: All are asleep, op.17/10; Minuet Op.26/9; Not the wind from on high, op.17/5; Winter path, op.32/4; Stalactites, op.26/6; Anxiously beats the heart, op.17/9
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone), Ivari Ilja (piano)
Ondine ODE 1216-2 (59 minutes)