the first three of these songs in 1875, the year after Boris
Godunov was first performed, and The Field Marshal
in 1877. According to Andrew Huth’s liner-notes he had plans
for a longer song cycle, “perhaps as many as twelve”, but since
death intervened, these four are all we have. And fascinating
they are, dramatic and still sounding quite modern. We don’t
know if the composer had any plans to orchestrate them, but
his two friends and “faithful” partisans, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov,
provided an orchestration of the piano accompaniment soon after
his premature death at the age of forty-two. As with other arrangements
and revisions from his friends, they have had their detractors,
so in 1962 Shostakovich made his own adaptation, which has won
universal acclaim. There are others also. Kim Borg recorded
the cycle for Supraphon in the 1960s with an arrangement “specially
prepared for this recording”. It doesn’t say by whom; a guess
is that it might be Borg himself who also was a skilled composer.
The songs require a deep male voice with histrionic power and
that is what Kim Borg had in abundance. His was also one of
those warm, rounded bass baritones that could sing with melting
beauty. Hvorostovsky reminds me of Borg, although his is a pure
baritone. He has the beauty, roundness and timbre that is quite
reminiscent of Borg’s. Hvorostovsky also recorded this cycle
at the beginning of his career, in January 1993 for Philips
with the Kirov Orchestra under Gergiev. That too involved the
Shostakovich arrangement. A comparison shows that even then
he was an eloquent interpreter. His voice was a little brighter,
a little lighter; on the present recording it has naturally
filled out, but not much. It is still that wonderfully sonorous
instrument out of which pours a stream of golden tone. Interpretatively
the differences are not that big. If anything he is more detailed,
more lieder-like in his utterances in the early recording. He
has always been good with the words, and he never misses an
opportunity to inflect a phrase, to underline the emotion. In
the more recent version he is still very keen with his words
but it is also a big-boned and grander performance. That might
have something to do with the occasion. In 1993 he recorded
in a studio in St Petersburg; in 2004 he was on stage, live,
at a Proms concert in the Royal Albert Hall. It seems natural
that you project your voice in relation to the venue. Add to
this an enthusiastic audience, of which we hear very little
until the last song is over, when there is a lot of “bravo”-ing.
I can’t really say that I prefer one version to the other; they
are both excellent. Any lover of these songs would be fully
satisfied with either – or both. This is also a matter of couplings.
The Philips disc has a recital of Russian baritone arias, most
of them not often heard and so a valuable addition to any collection
of Russian opera.
The present Warner
disc gives us Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, his last composition
and to my mind one of his greatest. It was first performed on
January 3, 1941 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra,
who also are the dedicatees. In a letter to Ormandy in August
1940, Rachmaninov wrote about his new composition which was
then finished. He was about to begin the orchestration. At this
stage the title was “Fantastic Dances”, but I think it was wise
to make the change; they are truly symphonic. The first and
last movements are both three-part structures, while the middle
movement is a waltz. At first Rachmaninov had intended to entitle
the movements “Noon”, “Twilight” and “Midnight”, a thought he
probably abandoned when he changed the title of the composition.
This work is definitely on a par with his second symphony and
this third piano concerto, and in all fairness it should be
played and recorded just as often as the two earlier masterpieces.
Maybe the original title would have been more tempting.
The first movement,
after an energetic opening section, contains one of his noblest
melodies, played first (at 3:25) by an alto saxophone. The instrument
that was new to Rachmaninov, who even consulted his friend Robert
Russell Bennett about how to use it. At 5:20 the strings take
over the melody; this is the true Romantic Rachmaninov sound,
but without the sentimentality of “Full moon and empty arms”.
The waltz movement is almost Tchaikovskian in its surge, but
has more macabre undertones. The finale is a real tour de force
for a virtuoso orchestra with an especially triumphant ending.
Played here by one of the great orchestras under a conductor
who has been their principal since 1988, the composition is
presented in the best possible light. The strings are warm and
silken, the wind has bite and the climaxes are thrilling. Tempos
are well judged and the waltz has that hard-to-describe lilt;
something a good performance of a Strauss waltz should also
This is a highly
recommendable version. “But?” I hear a reader saying, inquiring.
Well, were it not for the existence of another recording, much
older, there wouldn’t be a “but”. As it happens though, the
piece was recorded almost thirty-five years ago by the dedicatees,
Ormandy and The Philadelphians for CBS. This, in its turn, was
thirty years after the first performance and by then there wouldn’t
have been many players left from that occasion. Ormandy was
still there and the tradition was obviously deeply rooted in
the orchestra. They play the music at white heat, with a precision
that is even greater than the Russians, with a string sound
that is not necessarily warmer but leaner. The rhythms have
even more spring and the finale whirls along like a lava stream,
leaving this listener breathless. It is not so much a question
of tempo, for the playing time of this last movement is just
half a minute shorter with Ormandy - it is a matter of lightness.
Again the recording venue is to blame, for the Royal Albert
Hall creates a more fleshy sound with its enormous volume. Once
again this is an example of the outstanding being the enemy
of the very good, for Temirkanov’s version is indeed very good.
Without the knowledge of the Ormandy, which I have had around
since the 1970s, I wouldn’t have had any reservations at all.
As it is we have
here two excellent performances, and anyone who wants this particular
coupling need not hesitate.