Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ivari Ilja: "In This Moonlit Night"
Lieder by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Taneyev. Texts and translations. Ondine ODE 1216-2
Anyone concerned about Dmitri Hvorostovsky's seemingly strained vocal condition in recent opera appearances can take heart: this album constitutes a clean bill of health for the feisty baritone. Even allowing for the indulgent conditions of the recording studio, his tone is reassuringly, characteristically warm and vibrant, while his basic musicianship and aggressive style continue to rivet the attention.
Hvorostovsky's affinity for Tchaikovsky's lyricism and the harsh contrasts in Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death remains as vital as ever. If there are limits at the gentler end of his emotional range, his Mussorgsky cycle also shows a new maturity and confidence.
In the twenty years since he recorded the Songs and Dances of Death in the orchestral version (conducted by Valery Gergiev, on the Philips label), Hvorostovsky has traded virtuoso freedom in the upper register for a richer base of dark resonance that packs emotional weight without signs of contrivance. He relied on a busier, fussier style in his early version of the "Lullaby," with insistent portamentos in the "bajushki, baju, baju" refrain, and constant italicized menace. Now, he prefers the subtlety of concealed motives and pseudo-concern for the sick infant. In the diabolical martial and dance rhythms of later songs, even with less of his youthful "ping" he shows greater strength and solidity. Death is more clearly in control. The more leisurely tempo taken by the baritone and his accompanist Ivari Ilja reinforces this inevitable aspect of the drama.
Tchaikovsky's late group of six melancholy nocturnal songs (Opus 73) to poems by Daniil Rathaus plays off poetic moods against romantic frustration — a dynamic probably all too familiar to the composer but not especially popular with singers. One or two of the songs are usually heard in isolation, especially the smoky, close-interval "Snova, kak prezhde" (Alone again, as before), with its minor-tinged circular motion. Hvorostovsky has performed this piece in the past with more beautiful and polished tone, although he can still make it count. In this rare performance of the entire group, he is almost operatic: never does he seem to be meditating the intimate, introspective lines; an audience is always implied. Still, even at the expense of totally controlled tone, his temperament, sense of line and urgent diction are more than persuasive in the more forthright passages.
Anyone devoted to song needs to know the work of Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915). Hvorostovsky and Ilja have cherry-picked a marvelous assortment of the late-Romantic composer's dramatic and stylistic display pieces, which could have been composed expressly for these artists. The pianist makes a feast of the smorgasbord of effects — surging storms in "Anxiously beats the heart," glassy note clusters in "Stalactites" and a dazzling range of moods and tempos encompassed by the remarkable "Minuet" — almost a dance of death to rival Mussorgsky. Hvorostovsky is fearless and diverse, and especially feverish in comparison to recorded versions of Taneyev songs by bass-baritone Vassily Savenko (recorded in 2000) or soprano Oda Slobodskaya (1938). Only in "Ljudi spjat" (All are asleep) does one wish that he had heeded a line in the song itself about a nightingale: "his song is too loud."
DAVID J. BAKER
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