Mlada Procession of the Nobles
Aleko Ves tabar spit
Eugene Onegin Polonaise
The Demon Ne plach, dita; Na vazdushnam akeane
Khovanshchina Dawn Over the Moskva River
Prince Igor Ni sna, ni otdyha
Snow Maiden Dance of the Skormorchi
Néron Payu tebe, Boh Gimenej
Vot soldaty idut [Soldiers Are Coming]
Tiomnaia noch [Dark Is the Night]
Na bezymiannoy vysote [On a Nameless Hill]
The First Echelon Waltz
Zhdi menia [Wait for Me]
Dorogi [The Roads]
Gde-to daleko [Somewhere Far Away]
Solntse skrilos za goroiu [The Sun Hid Behind the Hill]
Slutchaynyy vals [Unexpected Waltz]
Posledniy boi [The Last Battle]
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Cathedral Choral Society
Philharmonia of Russia
Style of Five
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 25 January, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City
Billed as “From Russia with Love”, this collaboration between Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and American conductor Constantine Orbelian was really two very different events combined in a single programme.
The first part consisted of Russian opera excerpts, with arias sung by Hvorostovsky alternating with orchestral and choral selections performed by the Philharmonia of Russia – an expanded version of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Orbelian – and the Cathedral Choral Society, based in Washington, D.C. and directed by J. Reilly Lewis.
This operatic repertoire evoked the virtuosity of singer, orchestra and chorus alike, with Hvorostovsky projecting his rich baritone in arias by Rachmaninov, Borodin and Anton Rubinstein. The second half of the programme was devoted to popular “Songs of the War Years”, some written during World War II and others written later but still evoking the traumatic impact of that conflict on the Soviet nation. In these songs, Hvorostovsky’s voice was amplified, the orchestral arrangements were less sophisticated and featured traditional Russian instruments (played by the ensemble Style of Five), and the chorus joined Hvorostovsky in several of the songs.
The programme opened with the Procession of the Nobles from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Mlada”, rich in orchestral colours and stirring choral singing. Also notable was the prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, portraying dawn over the Moskva river.
In addition to arias from Rachmaninov’s “Aleko” and Borodin’s “Prince Igor”, Hvorostovsky performed three arias by Anton Rubinstein. In two “The Demon”, Hvorostovsky portrayed the villainous title character, bent on destroying the beauty of the world and obsessively pursuing the princess to whom he sings. But the highlight was the third Rubinstein selection, the epithalamium (a lyric ode in honour of a bride and bridegroom), “Payu tebe, Boh Gimenej” (I Sing to You, Hymen Divine). Accompanied by the orchestra’s harpist, Natalia Shameeva, with the full orchestra joining briefly between stanzas, Hvorostovsky gave a marvellous rendition of this aria, building to a thrilling climax that brought the first half of the programme to a close.
The war era songs proved to be the more interesting and entertaining. This was one occasion when amplification of the vocal soloist was welcome. The resulting balance of forces proved excellent, permitting Hvorostovsky to sing softly and expressively without having to strain to be heard above the orchestra and chorus.
These Russian war songs are much closer to the classical art song idiom than contemporaneous British and American popular wartime songs. Indeed, they lie close to, and in some cases within, the genre of the Russian ‘Romance’, which comprises an extensive repertory, both by well-known classical composers and by composers known only for more popular music. Like the Romances, the war songs have attained a widespread popularity and familiarity that only the most popular ‘standards’ enjoy in the west.
It also comes as little surprise that these songs are thematically darker than wartime songs from Britain and the U.S. After all, the Soviet Union was invaded and suffered even more enormous devastation and loss of life than was sustained in western Europe and Britain – and incomparably more than the virtually unscathed American homeland. When Hvorostovsky performed these songs in Russia several years ago, virtually everyone in the vast Kremlin concert hall knew them well; many in the audience could be seen silently mouthing the words – and shedding copious tears.
That emotional response simply could not be replicated in New York, although the Avery Fisher Hall audience undoubtedly included many Russian émigrés for whom these wartime songs evoke vivid memories. By approaching these war-era songs with the same intensity and artistry that he brought to the operatic repertoire, Hvorostovsky conferred on them a nobility and depth that transcended their “popular” music origins and was perceptible to everyone in attendance.
A number of the songs expressed the loneliness of soldiers in combat. Nikita Bogoslovsky’s “Dark Is the Night” takes the form of a soldier’s letter to his wife, declaring his love and his faith in a safe return home – a theme also found in Kirill Molchanov’s “Wait for Me”. The soldier’s longing for human contact brings out the poignancy of an unanticipated encounter in Mark Fradkin’s “Unexpected Waltz”. And in Mikael Tariverdiev’s “Somewhere Far Away” the soldier asks the sorrows of war to give way, however briefly, to happy memories of childhood and home.
Most of the other songs were more martial in character. Molchanov’s “Soldiers Are Coming”, set a military tone with its march tempo and trumpet calls, yet expressed the soldiers’ affection for the natural beauty of their homeland and their hope for a peaceful homecoming at war’s end. Veniamin Basner’s “On a Nameless Hill” is a veteran’s recollection of a battle that took the lives of most of his comrades in arms. Matvey Blanter and Aleksandr Kovalenkov’s “The Sun Hid Behind the Hills”, sung by the chorus, told of Soviet soldiers returning home from the war, with choristers swaying in alternate rows to mimic the army’s marching.
The most affecting of the battlefield songs were “Dorogi” (The Roads) by Anatoly Novikov, and Yan Frenkel’s “Zhuravley” (Cranes). “Dorogi” made effective use of traditional Russian instruments and the chorus to aid Hvorostovsky evoke the bleak reality of a soldier’s life: dust, fog, cold and anxiety, punctuated by deadly gunfire that kills a friend, while a mother sits on her sunny porch far away, awaiting her son’s return. Although it was not written until 1969, nearly a quarter of a century after the war in Europe had ended, “Zhuravley” was perhaps the most touching of all the songs about war. As a soldier watches cranes flying overhead, he thinks that they may actually be transformed soldiers who had been killed in battle but not buried, and he wonders whether the empty space in their formation might be awaiting him. Style of Five’s Russian instruments were featured prominently as Hvorostovsky, joined by the chorus, sang sweetly and whisperingly, finally humming the melody as the song ended.
The programme concluded with Mikhail Nozhkin’s “The Last Battle”, a weary soldier’s hope that, after four years of war, tomorrow’s battle will be his last and that he will survive to return to Russia.
- This programme will be repeated at London’s Barbican Hall on 17 February 2006