Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Ivari Ilja in New York

Suite on Words of Michelangelo, Op.145
Ja pomnju chudnoe mgnovenie; V krovi gorit ogon’ zhelania; Priznanie
Chnoi zefir; Yunoshu i deva
Dlja beregov otchizny dal’noj
Redeet oblakov letuchaja grjada
Ne poi krasavitza pri mne
Fontan Bakhchisaraiskogo Dvortsa
Pod’ezzhaya pod Izhory

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) & Ivari Ilja (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 17 May, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Joining in the Shostakovich centenary celebrations, Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky devoted the first half of his recital to one of the composer’s last works, the “Suite on Words of Michelangelo”. (The recital was moved to Avery Fisher from the smaller Alice Tully Hall, a decision that made more sense at the box office than in the hall.) Shostakovich chose to set texts from sonnets by Michelangelo Buonarotti not only to commemorate the 500th-anniversary of the Renaissance master’s birth, but also because of their treatment of philosophical questions about matters of life, death and art that are both timeless and timely – particularly as Shostakovich contemplated the end of his lifetime of struggle as a creative artist.

Singing from a score – and hence wearing half-lens eyeglasses – and sporting a new, spiky hairstyle, Hvorostovsky projected an image rather different from what his audiences have been accustomed to seeing. Unchanged, however, were the beauty and power of his voice and his superb musicianship.

The Michelangelo Suite was sung in its original version, with the piano accompaniment played most ably by Estonian Ivari Ilja in equal partnership with Hvorostovsky, as the score demands. The suite was completed barely a year before Shostakovich’s death and, at the urging of friends, the incurably ill composer rushed to create an orchestral version, in which version the Suite is now most often performed. However, Hvorostovsky and Ilja made a strong case for the original piano version’s superiority in terms of both raw emotional power and the immediacy of communication of musical and textual ideas.

This was most strikingly (pun definitely intended) illustrated in the eighth song, which Shostakovich titled “Creativity”, in which the poet-sculptor speaks of the process by which his hammer creates a human likeness from a block of stone, observing that he is able to do so only with the aid of God’s (figurative) hammer blows. Shostakovich’s piano accompaniment, with its ear-shattering chords as prelude, interludes, and, especially, as postlude, captures the sound of the sculptor’s hammer far more vividly than any array of percussion instruments. The visual image of Ilja forcefully swinging his arms to the keyboard to strike those chords was absolutely unforgettable.

The suite’s opening song, “Truth”, which speaks of the selflessness of the creative arts, is followed by three love songs, the cheerful “Morning”, the ardent “Love” with its florid prelude, and “Parting”, which begins almost conversationally and then darkens in its contemplation of impending death. “Anger” comes as an outburst by both singer and pianist, with Ilja’s crashing chords surrounding a rapidly sung final stanza. The next two songs, “Dante” and “To the Exile”, both tributes to the great Italian poet, address issues of conflict between artists and those in power – a subject with which Shostakovich was all too familiar. Both are quite dramatic and end with sustained notes fading away to a silence that is then broken by the percussive “Creativity”.

The next two songs are darker and more contemplative in tone. “Night” metaphorically likens the raw stone to a sleeper who is awakened by the creative process; “Death” begins with the identical prelude that introduces the opening song, seemingly equating death and truth. Although this musical repetition suggests closure of the cycle, Shostakovich added one more song, “Immortality”, in which Michelangelo’s text speaks not of death, but of eternal sleep, proclaiming that he will still live on in the friends who lament for him and in the hearts of all loving people. The setting of this song is quite unusual. The piano begins in a very high register, sounding much like a music box playing a nursery tune – which is, in fact, a piano piece Shostakovich composed at age 9. This continues through the first stanza, and as an interlude between the stanzas, but on the words “I seem to be dead”, the piano begins to play dark chords and accompanies the second stanza in a sombre vein. After the final words are sung, the piano plays two chords and then reverts to the high, music-box-like timbre and march-time of the prelude, but fades away completely without the original melody ever returning.

The second half of the programme consisted of songs by eight composers, all settings of the poetry of Russia’s literary giant, Alexander Pushkin, whose writings also served as the basis for many of the greatest Russian operas. These poems are obsessed with themes of love, sometimes present but often past, and of lovers, sometimes together but often apart. Hvorostovsky and Ilja performed them with appropriate passion and tenderness.

Hvorostovsky proceeded in more or less chronological order, beginning with three songs by Mikhail Glinka, “Ja pomnju chudnoe mgnovenie” (I Recall a Wonderful Moment) with its changes of mood and melody, the ardent “V krovi gorit ogon’ zhelania” (The Fire of Longing Burns in My Heart), and finally “Priznanie” (Declaration), a waltz that comes to a sudden conclusion. Next were two songs by Glinka’s protégé, Alexander Dargomyzhsky: the Spanish-rhythmed “Chnoi zefir” (The Night Zephyr Stirs the Air) and the bittersweet “Yunoshu i deva” (The Young Man and the Maiden).

Hvorostovsky gave Alexander Borodin’s “Dlja beregov otchizny dal’noj” (For the Shores of Thy Far Native Land) a dark and sonorous performance, and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Redeet oblakov letuchaja grjada” (The Clouds Begin to Scatter) his voice was initially silvery over the piano’s murmuring arpeggios, before turning deeper and more powerful, leading to a dramatic piano interlude which gradually returned to the original murmuring motif as the vocal line also faded away.

Spanning the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were two songs by composer-pianists. Nicolai Medtner’s “Mechtatelju” (To a Dreamer), composed in 1915, was very passionately sung, and in Rachmaninov’s “Ne poi krasavitza pri mne” (Do Not Sing, My Beauty), dating from 1892-93, Ilja masterfully played the arpeggiated accompaniment with its extended postlude.

The programme ended with two songs by 20th-century composers. In “Fontan Bakhchisaraiskogo Dvortsa” (The Fountains of the Bakhehsari Palace), by the little-known Vladimir Vlasov, Ilja gave a brilliant account of the complex accompaniment, which portrays the “fountain of tears” at the Khan’s Crimean palace. Georgy Sviridov’s “Pod’ezzhaya pod Izhory” (Drawing Near to Izhory), opened dramatically with a galloping accompaniment, slowed to a near halt as Hvorostovsky and Ilja alternated phrases, and ended as explosively as it had begun.

Hvorostovsky sang four encores. “Oh de’ verd’anni miei” from Verdi’s “Ernani” was followed by two Neapolitan songs, “Passione” by Nicola Valente, and “Parlami d’amore, Mariù” by Cesare Andrea Bixio. He ended the evening singing, a cappella, a Russian folk song, “Nochen’ka” (Little Night).

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