A Marvellous Evening of Russian Song with Dmitri Hvorostovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glinka, Darghomyzhsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Rachmaninov, Sviridov: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone); Ivari Ilja, (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 10.3.2014 (CC)

Glinka  – I remember that magical moment;
My blood boils with desire;
Darghomyzhsky – The Jealous Maiden
Borodin – For the Shores of your far homeland
Rimsky-Korsakov – The flying chain of clouds is thinning
Cui – The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo
Medtner – I have outlived my aspirations; To the Dreamer; A Winter Evening
Rachmaninov – Oh beauty, merciful to me be
Sviridov – Round Izhova I was riding ; St Petersburg.

An all-Russian song evening is a rare treat in London, especially when hosted by the great baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The programme was well thought out: a first half of settings of Pushkin by a bouquet of composers, followed by settings of Blok in a song-cycle written expressly for Hvorostovsky. The thread linking the first half was more than Pushkin: it was how magnificently these great composers responded to these great texts.

Glinka’s songs don’t get out much, so it was delightful to have three to ease us into the evening. I remember that magical moment is a lovely outpouring, a proper showcase for Hvorostovsky’s burnished timbre as well as for the superb pianist, Ivari Ilja. My blood boils with desire is a sweet outgoing ditty – although its title might suggest otherwise – while the even shorter Confession (often given as Declaration) was beautifully, and sweetly, done. Hvorostovsky can do the heavier, demanding works, certainly – but he can also deliver on the simpler side of Russian song.

Alexander Darghomyzhsky (1813-1889) gets a bad rap; he’s known mainly for his final opera, The Stone Guest, generally cited because of the subject matter (think Don Giovanni) and the use of “melodic recitative”.  So how welcome to have an offering; how cruel that there was only the one. A jealous maiden represented the darker side of Russian Romanticism, and was accordingly all the more to be relished. This trait was carried on, perhaps, in the characteristic Russian melancholy of Borodin’s For the Shores of your far homeland, which might as well have been co-written with Mussorgsky such was its heaviness of heart.

Rimsky-Korsakov was represented by just one song, The flying chain of clouds is thinning, surprisingly fragmented in its vocal line and, once more, shot through with melancholy. The fearsomely difficult accompaniment was despatched with aplomb, while Hvorostovsky’s passion was palpable. Throughout he was fully involved with the music and texts. Initially, his voice sounded rather strained in its upper reaches, though, something which mercifully disappeared before the advent of the second half.

It was wonderful to welcome Cui to the party, with his gorgeous setting of The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo which featured beautifully even arperggios from Ilja. Then Tchaikovsky’s familiar The Nightingale brought infinite pleasure, not least from Hvorostovsky’s laudable ability to hit notes straight in the middle at the outset of phrases.

Medtner’s songs – in fact his music in general – are woefully undervalued, so to hear three songs was a joy. I have outlived my aspirations became ever more musically sophisticated; To the Dreamer was low-lying for this singer but magnificently convincing, and finally A Winter Evening, with its tricky, descending scale-dominated accompaniment, and its long melodies, introduced us to a true masterpiece. Some readers might be familiar with Zara Dolukhanova’s recording of this song with the composer at the piano; that account holds a climax that will make your hair stand on end) Hvorostovsky was hardly less successful.

In this company, Rachmaninov had to make an appearance, if a rather brief one: Oh beauty, merciful to me be”, but it was Sviridov’s  Round Izhova I was riding that was the perfect end to the first part. Somewhat Stravinskian in its rhythmic foregrounding but harmonically sophisticated, it was a most welcome surprise.

Sviridov’s song-cycle St Petersburg, subtitled “a vocal poem”, was written for Hvorostovsky, and it certainly sounded as if the singer had lived with it and knew the score’s deepest, darkest secrets. The  partnership between singer and pianist was also at its height here too, the deeply resonant piano opening (“The Weathercock”) perfectly matched to Hvorostovsky’s equally resonant voice; the sweet tones of the next song (“The Golden Oar”) offered consolation. Sviridov’s extended composition is a magnificent edifice, encompassing Mahlerian emptiness (the fourth song, “A Voice from the chorus”); maudlin drunkenness (“I am nailed to a tavern counter”); and a wildly distorted waltz in the seventh movement (“Petersburg Song, 7 December 1906”), which featured. superb piano playing. In massive contrast to this latter song, the penultimate “Those born in obscure years” is interior and desolate. There is something of the valedictory mood of the final movement, “Der Leiermann”, from Schubert’s Winterreise about Sviridov’s parting gesture, “The Virgin City”. Hvorostovsky lived this final song, steering it, in tandem with Ilja, from the opening’s gentle ululations towards a climax shot through with iron.

No encore, and rightly so. Hvorostovsky left Sviridov’s masterpiece resonating in our ears.


Colin Clarke