Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Evgeny Kissin

Why?, Op. 6/5; The love of a dead man, Op.38/5;Ah, if only you could for one moment, Op.38/4; On golden cornfields, Op.57/2; Pimpinella, Op.38/6; Say of what, in the shade of branches, Op.57/1; To forget so soon; In the midst of the ball, Op.38/3; O child, Op.63/6; Don Juan’s Serenade, Op.38/1
Gone are my heart’s desires, Op.3/2; To a dreamer, Op.32/6; Prosperous voyage, Op.15/8; The wanderer’s night song, Op.6/1; Winter evening, Op.13/1
‘Tis time, Op.14/12; Believe me not, friend, Op.14/7; I was with her, Op.14/4; Let us rest, Op.26/3; Spring waters, Op.14/11

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) & Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 16 October, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The main debate over song performance in the middle years of the last century surrounded the relationship between singer and accompanist. Since the birth of the Art-Song recital in the mid-nineteenth-century the pianist had been subservient to the singer, his name printed smaller on posters, his fee smaller, his contribution receiving less attention, if any, in critical reviews. Phrases such as “accompanied by” and “at the piano” consigned the pianist to the function little more significant than the singer’s bag carrier, even though the importance of the piano part in the interpretation of the poem had long since been enhanced by composers, the example having been set by Schubert and elaborated by Schumann and his other successors in the Lieder tradition, closely followed by French mélodies, Russian romances and English song.

The elevation of the accompanist to equal status in the partnership involved in delivering Lieder can be largely traced to the work of the great Gerald Moore, who promoted the cause of the accompanist not only through the excellence of his playing in recital and on recordings but also in print (his book “The Unashamed Accompanist” proclaims his cause in its very title), in broadcasts and lecture-recitals. The battle has long been won. It can be no coincidence that the status of Art-Song itself and of the vocal recital has risen over the same period.

Following the pioneering work of Gerald Moore a new generation of accompanists formed partnerships with distinguished singer-recitalists, Dalton Baldwin and Geoffrey Parsons to name but two. In more recent times the accompanist has stepped forward from the piano stool to become presenter, lecturer and writer about the song repertoire. Graham Johnson’s establishment of “The Songmaker’s Almanac”, at whose carefully planned and highly integrated concerts he would act as commentator and analyst, dealing not only with musical values but also putting the songs into historical and social context, was a turning point, later turned into literary form in his exhaustive booklet notes for numerous Hyperion recordings. Roger Vignoles has latterly followed his example.

Another trend discernible in the last thirty years or so has been the emergence of the ‘celebrity accompanist’. The origins of this are perhaps in the appearance of leading international conductors to accompany distinguished singers: One thinks of Bruno Walter with Lottie Lehmann and Kathleen Ferrier, Wilhelm Furtwängler with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (and later Wolfgang Sawallisch with Lucia Popp).

The movement which this recital exemplifies is that of a celebrated concert-pianist joining a singer, often in works which are perceived to offer opportunities for the pianist’s virtuosity and insight; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s 1970s’ revisiting of Schumann with Christoph Eschenbach, of Wolf with Daniel Barenboim and of Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Alfred Brendel are obvious examples. This has been followed up by other great pianists: Wolfgang Holzmair, who was normally accompanied by Gérard Wyss in his recitals and some early recordings on various minor labels, was then paired with Imogen Cooper for his Lieder series on Philips. Perhaps the most successful exponent of this collaboration with singers alongside a flourishing career as a concert-pianist is András Schiff, who has managed to balance his diverse activities admirably.

Evgeny KissinAnd now we have Evgeny Kissin undertaking a tour with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in what would seem to be entirely suitable repertoire of songs by Russian composers. Regrettably it turned out not to be a partnership of equals. Where Kissin filled the auditorium with powerful, spacious sound, Hvorostovsky rarely seemed to have anything to spare. Tchaikovsky’s lyricism brought out the best in him. “In the midst of the ball” was compelling, delivered in nothing louder than mezzo-piano. The monologue “On golden cornfields” was begun with intense focus, the dynamics kept on an elastic lead, while the use of the voice at the emotional landmarks on the song’s journey was creative. The performance was topped by a display of finely poised ppp singing and breath control in the final stanza.

There was no gainsaying Hvorostovsky’s musicianship: he was at home with the sophisticated structure in which Tchaikovsky clothes some of the poems, based on a constantly evolving line in songs like “Say, of what, in the shade of branches” or the nostalgic “Ah, if only you could for a moment”. Other songs brought frustrations at the well-intended but under-powered climaxes. He hit the high notes dead in the centre and moved fluently at the top but the tone was thin, not gaining in resonance despite the pressure he habitually put on it to try to expand its effect.

Ironically, he seemed at his best in the Italianate “Pimpinella”, not only sung in that language but based on a foundation of Bellinian cantilena, the singer adding a hint of detached irony which he applied to the hyperbole of the poet’s declarations of love. The Serenade “O child”, with its light accompaniment, was another success, the honeyed tone before the re-appearance of the original melody most endearing.

Dmitri HvorostovskyElsewhere I felt that we were being invited to admire Kissin’s brilliance in isolation. Sometimes he established a mood vividly and throughout he exposed inner detail which I don’t remember hearing before. However, there was an unavoidable impression that the pianist was being spot-lit. There seemed to be a policy in the selection of the songs of favouring those with a long postlude, as if to showcase Kissin’s eloquent playing. Eloquent it certainly was, in his weighty completion of the ballad-like “The love of a dead man” or the fading to silence of “To forget so soon?” but also prone to be over-dramatic for this composer. By the time we reached the final Tchaikovsky song it was all too predictable that the passage-work in “Don Juan’s Serenade” would be taken frantically fast. No doubt some found it exciting but the seductive appeal which ends the singer’s first verse was regrettably overwhelmed.

The dislocation between singer and pianist widened after the interval. Medtner’s songs expressly separate voice from piano. For most of “Winter evening” one wondered whether the two artists were performing the same work. In “Gone are my heart’s desires” the interest resides almost exclusively in the keyboard part. In some of the songs selected the composer attempts to compensate for the lack of melodic inspiration with vocal challenges, especially to breath control. This has long been recognised as one of Hvorostovsky’s strengths but I did not except the attempt on the world record for sustaining a note which he ventured at the end of “The wanderer’s night song”. To his credit he ended it cleanly, without the jolt which ostentatious high-note merchants might use as a signal for applause.

Hvorostovsky treated these songs very seriously. His face between songs bore a fixed frown; no acknowledgement was made of applause. By contrast, after each of the Rachmaninov group he was all smiles. The selection was quite diverse, the unifying factors being the virtuoso writing for piano and the extremes of tessitura and expression required of the singer. Kissin did not disappoint. His partner had admittedly some impressive moments, a wide range of colour in the monumental “‘Tis time”, the stylish assumption of a “Boris Godunov”-like monologue manner for the morose “Let us rest” but the occasional high notes which the composer has scattered in several of these songs were more hysterical than assured.

Two encores were provided, Rachmaninov’s “In the silence of the secret night” and Robert’s aria from “Iolanta” (Tchaikovsky). In the final climactic phrase of the latter I heard at last the baritone’s upper register truly resonate.Much of this programme of songs, especially those in the second half, needs a dramatic baritone voice, possessing bulk at the bottom and density in the middle and top registers. Hvorostovsky’s low register is itself lacking in sonority and he simply does not have the big guns for a large auditorium, something that this partnership with Kissin accentuated.

A fan presented Hvorostovsky with a bouquet and a helium balloon on his forty-sixth birthday. One was reminded of the passage of time and of the way his career has developed since 1989 and his triumph in that year’s “Cardiff Singer of the World”. Then his personal charisma and interpretative skills promised him high rank as an opera and concert singer. Many members of this Barbican Hall audience rose to offer a standing ovation, though one does not know whether it was addressed to singer, pianist or both.

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