I welcomed Decca Eloquence’s reissue of David Del Tredici’s Final
Alice last month and commended them for resurrecting
discs that aren’t otherwise available. This Philips set appears
to derive from two separate recordings made in 1991 and 1996,
the first with the Ossipov Folk Orchestra, the second with the
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. Of course the Ossipov band will
be familiar to anyone who has heard their historic Mercury Living
Presence recording of Balalaika Favorites (4756610). They
are a bright, invigorating band and an ideal partner for the impassioned,
idiomatic singing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. At the outset I was
less than enthusiastic about the second disc but found myself
warming to the music-making as the disc progressed.
The CD cover shows a very young Hvorostovsky – a world away from his silver-haired
Germont père at Covent Garden last January – and it’s
that youthful ardour that makes the first disc so special. As
it happens it’s the band that strikes the boldest pose with
‘teh peddlers: Oh, the little box is full’ but Hvorostovsky
soon proves his mettle with some spirited singing. Not only
that, he brings an operatic intensity to the lyrics that seems
He is also moving in the quieter pieces, especially ‘A snowstorm blows’
and ‘Masha: Masha has been told’, where the orchestra is more
restrained but still atmospherically recorded. Unfortunately
no song texts are provided, which is understandable in a collection
like this, but cued synopses would be useful for those who don’t
know these songs. I suppose the titles tell us all we need to
know and Hvorostovsky’s vocal colouring does the rest. Certainly
his solo singing in ‘Farewell happiness’ is heartbreaking, with
exemplary control, notably in those soft, floated high notes.
Of the orchestral tracks it’s a joy to hear the crisp, clear balalaikas
in ‘Plyaska’ and in that perennial favourite ‘Kamarinskaya’,
the distinctive, surging rhythms superbly articulated. But if
this is quintessentially Russian in sound and mood then the
lovely ‘At the time when the stars’ is equally so. The inwardness
of this song is very well served by the singer’s finely graded,
unmannered vocal style. The Philips recording is warm and natural,
too, with the balance between soloist and orchestra nicely judged.
In fact, sensitivity and good taste abound on this disc. Even in the more
extrovert moments singer and band never succumb to sentimentality.
This is always a risk with songs that can so easily sound lachrymose,
among them the heartfelt ’I walk out on to the path alone’,
‘’Elegy: When my soul you wanted’, and ‘If only words could
convey’. The latter also finds Hvorostovsky in ringing, heroic
voice at the end, the orchestra rising to the occasion as well.
The conductor Nikolai Kalinin is a model of restraint and good sense,
judging the music’s emotional and musical peaks to perfection.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this repertoire being more winningly
done. Of course there are alternative approaches to this repertoire,
such as the legendary Red Army Ensemble, who bring another kind
of magic to this repertoire. In either case that uniquely Russian
sound seldom fails to thrill.
The programme is also well chosen, the more reflective songs alternating
with more bravura ones. Among the latter is ‘Dark eyes’, to
which Hvorostovsky brings real passion, not to mention superb
diction, the hard consonants and soft vowels as clear and commanding
as one could hope for.
After that display the gentle orchestral item ‘The lime tree’ sounds even
more magical. There is plenty of detail here and the overall
effect is most satisfying. A lovely piece, affectionately played.
Ditto ‘Not just one path’, where the Ossipov band underpin the
vocal line with great subtlety. Once again one revels in the
unforced naturalness of Hvorostovsky’s burnished baritone; just
listen to that sustained note beginning at 3:18. And then there’s
some beautifully phrased pianissimo singing and phrasing in
the solo ’Night, oh sweet night’. Yes, there is some breathiness
and a touch of histrionics here but it hardly matters when the
singing is this good.
This enchanting disc rounds off with ’Coachman: How dismal and misty’,
complete with its orchestral clip-clop and jangle of bridle
and harness. As ever Hvorostovsky is in fine voice, darkly virile
and splendidly articulate.
Well, how do you follow that? Impossible, perhaps. As a single disc this
would be highly desirable but I had my doubts about the second
one. There are several reasons for this. For a start, I found
the music-making less spontaneous sounding, the St. Petersburg
Chamber Choir brighter and lighter than I had expected. And
then there are the arrangements – one of them by Shostakovich,
no less – which are variable to say the least.
That said ‘Kalinka’ isn’t at all bad, but either the recorded balance
or simple wear and tear has robbed Hvorostovky’s voice of its
usual warmth and body. Rhythmically I found the piece less convincing
than usual but the choral singing is certainly crisp and clear.
The recording venue sounds cooler, more analytical, making some
of the more declamatory passages, especially in the animated
‘Barinya’ and ‘Ah, do you hear my dearest friend’, seem a little
Vocally Hvorostovsky’s baritone seems to have lightened in the intervening
years. It still has a marvellous ringing quality but it’s not
always so steady. Admittedly this disc seems to focus more on
the choral singing than the soloist – emphasised by the recording
balance – so perhaps the first disc gives Hvorostovsky more
scope to impress.
The a cappella choral singing in ‘Round dance’ – arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov
– is rather disappointing. The singing is crisp enough but the
rhythms seem blurred, the overall effect somewhat anodyne. Matters
improve a little in ‘When I met you’, with Hvorostovsky sounding
more like his younger self.
The choir make amends in ‘The little widow’, where rocking rhythms are
beautifully realised and the singing has a real emotional tug.
And they are surprisingly nimble in the bright little number
‘How was I, a tender maiden’, their vocal glissandos in ‘Rhyming
song’ nicely done, too. In ‘Ah, you field’ they sing with plenty
of body and bite, sounding much more Russianate than before.
It does seem that this second disc improves the more one hears, although
I still feel the programme isn’t as appealing or as varied as
that on the first one. Certainly the rapport between choir and
soloist is evident in every bar of ‘As never white birch tree’
and the meltingly beautiful ‘The noise of the town cannot be
heard’. There is a hushed intensity here that’s been missing
from this disc so far, with both soloist and choir in spine-tingling
form. Just listen to the final bars, as beautiful a piece of
sustained singing as you’re likely to hear anywhere.
‘In the dark forest’ the choir is superb, the women’s voices adding a
corona of light to the darker men’s voices below. Rhythmically
they seem much more alert as well and again the quiet final
bars are hair-raising in the way that only Russian choral singing
can be. Indeed, I was completely won over at this point and
I’m pleased to say there are no missteps from here on. The choral
numbers ‘Already the fog has descended’ and ‘Birch-broom’ are
very nimble indeed.
This disc ends with an eloquent and moving rendition of ‘I set off alone
down the road’ Make no mistake, this choir may sound lighter
than one might expect but they can sound wonderfully dramatic
at times. Just listen to that magical fade as the chorus dies
away at the close, a terrific finale to a very fine set.
initial reservations I’m happy to say this is a wonderful collection
that should appeal to all lovers of Russian music. Another winner