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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich, 1962) (1875-77) [20:13]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances (1940) [33:41]
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
rec. live, Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 24 August 2004. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

For three or four years Warner sustained an arrangement with the BBC under which they were able to issue a selection of recordings from the Promenade concerts. This disc was one of the fruits of that agreement. As such the odd cough and shuffle here and there must come as no surprise. 

This is a comparatively short playing disc but compensated for by the celebrity participants and the enviable qualities of the performances. Hvorostovsky - extensively recorded on Delos - has his own very large and popular following. They will already have acquired this disc. His Mussorgsky cycle leaves to one side his predilection for potent sentimentality - try his wonderful Delos recital discs with Constantine Orbelian - and instead embraces the dark and implacably resolute Mussorgsky songs. His indomitable chest voice recalls Benjamin Luxon at his finest but adds a lignite blackness of tone that seems to be largely the province of the Russia and Slav basses and baritones. I make the honourable exception of the miraculous Charles Robert Austin recorded in Shostakovich’s Stepan Razin cantata on Naxos. Hvorostovsky’s richly stocked voice is here caught in all its vital dark and sable tonal lustre.

So far as the Rachmaninov is concerned this turns out to be a subtle and at first coolly understated, confiding and sometimes drowsy-distant version of the Symphonic Dances. Things heat up however in the finale and are just as I remembered them from when I heard the last ten minutes of this work in the car on the way home from Warrington almost five years ago now. The singing quality of the St Petersburg violins shines out in a smiling glow in the finale at 8:03. The final section from 9:12 is given a snappy, rip-snorting and cracking performance with the brass and woodwind abrasive, sardonic and triumphant. It is no wonder that the audience explodes in thunder of applause. A pity that this overlays the decay of the laisser-vibrer final slam-crash of the tam-tam. 

The Rachmaninov cannot really be a library recommendation. For that you must go back to Polyansky on Chandos (see review), Svetlanov on Regis (see review) and on Melodiya the sensational Kondrashin from the 1960s with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra (Melodiya MELCD1000840). Even so if you have any feeling for this work - and it is one of my favourites - try to track down a copy of this Warner disc to hear a glorious final dance from an orchestra in extraordinary possessed communion with the audience. 

The notes by Andrew Huth are lucid, full, good and cover all the principal bases. I owe it to Mr Huth that I can point out that Shostakovich was inspired by the Mussorgsky cycle in his own death-centred symphony No. 14. When Shostakovich orchestrated the songs in 1962 he stayed faithful to the Mussorgskian style. He had already prepared editions of Mussorgsky's operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. The sung texts for the Mussorgsky songs are printed in full in the sung Russian and in parallel layout in German, English and French translations.

Rob Barnett


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