Russian Songs

Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Evgeny Kissin

Barbican Hall, 18 October 2008 4.5 stars

Dmitri HvorostovskyThis recital from the Barbican's Great Performers series was, first and foremost, an electric evening of high quality music making from two of the best known performers on today's international concert scene.

However, it also raised interesting questions about the collaboration between a singer and his accompanist. Some notable excursions into chamber music repertoire notwithstanding, Kissin is primarily famous for being a child prodigy pianist who has survived the transition to adult virtuoso, and he now tours the world, performing warhorses of the solo piano repertoire in every major concert hall, as concerto soloist and solo recitalist. As any regular attendee of song recitals knows, the art of accompanying a singer is quite different from that of despatching a Liszt piano transcription, and it was fascinating to see what Kissin's artistic make-up brought to the concert.

From the outset, it was clear that these two excellent musicians have an empathetic artistic relationship. Hvorostovsky achieved the most incredible line in the opening song, Tchaikovsky's 'Otchego?', displaying remarkable consistency of timbre and legato, but laden with all the tragic tension in the text. Kissin balanced this tension with an inexorable forward movement in the accompaniment, and then dispelled it in an unfussy, straight-forward manner in the final measures after the last line of the vocal part.

Throughout the recital, Kissin's reluctance to linger during piano introductions, interludes and postludes was most appealing, and avoided any trace of the affectation which I feel can creep into the work of some well-known accompanists. He did, I feel, cross the line into brusqueness only in Tchaikovsky's 'Serenada Don Zhuana', in which he seized on the rapid piano writing as an opportunity to display virtuoso élan. This led to a bizarre imbalance in this song, where the vocal interjections were necessarily at a slower tempo than the piano sections, and the final play out was almost anti-musical. However, there were countless occasions where Kissin displayed mesmerising artistry, for instance the achingly stark timbre he achieved in the spread chords at the opening of Tchaikovsky's 'Na nivy zholtye', conjuring up the dark and oppressive nature of the text vividly, setting up the scene for the singer.

Kissin's remarkable skill as a pianist gave him access to an extremely wide dynamic range. This meant not only delicate piannissimi, but also, of course, massive waves of sound. These were thrilling and appropriate at times, for instance in Rachmaninov's justly famous 'Vesenniye vody', but I felt he belied his relative lack of experience as an accompanist in not always recognising where it would have been preferable to keep things a little less explosive. This applied particularly to the group of Medtner songs after the interval. As one would expect, given that Medtner wrote the songs with his own considerable skills as a pianist in mind, the piano writing is very full, and seems to exploit the central register of the piano particularly richly. This coincides closely with the vocal tessitura of these songs when undertaken by a baritone. Had Kissin been accompanying a mezzo-soprano, singing an octave higher than Hvorostovsky does, there would have been no issue, but as it was, the vocal line was frequently overwhelmed in these settings.

Hvorostovsky himself was on typically fine form. When I reviewed his most recent arias CD, 'Heroes and Villains' I remarked that since coming to prominence almost 20 years ago in the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, his voice appears to have suffered no wear and tear and remains as fresh and vibrant as ever. Hearing him in the congenial situation of a song recital, I would say that in fact, not only has it lost none of its lustre, but it has gained in richness, colour, and volume. His attention to detail regarding the text is very impressive, taking the trouble to differentiate the vast array of complex consonant and vowel sounds in the Russian language clearly, more so than many of his fellow native singers. And his phrasing, which for me has always been beautiful and expansive, has gained in subtlety. The Tchaikovsky song 'Serenada: O ditja' was a particular highlight, with Hvorostovsky drawing out the line like a violinist in beautiful hushed tones, but affording it an undercurrent of seething 'Dusha' like only he can.

Evgeny KissinOnly in Tchaikovsky's 'Pimpinella' did he fail to convince me. This song, which Hvorostovsky chose to sing in the Italian version (there is a translation into Russian, made by Tchaikovsky himself), is comparable in vocal terms to Donizetti's writing for the characters Belcore and Malatesta. Just as Hvorostovsky's operatic repertoire has moved on from these two roles, so this song seemed a slightly incongruous inclusion in the otherwise rather serious programme. Although at previous song recitals of Hvorostovsky's which I have attended the subject matter of all of the poetry has been unremittingly gloomy, on this occasion there was far more light and shade than usual, and so the inclusion of 'Pimpinella' was not necessary.

The best was saved until the last, in the shape of the Rachmaninov group. Kissin was of course absolutely in his element. The heightened nature of the vocal writing suits Hvorostovsky the stage animal down to the ground, and the pieces themselves are composed with perhaps more sensitivity to the nature of the human voice than those of Medtner. All five songs programmed received excellent performances, but the lovely stillness the artists achieved in 'My addahnjom' was particularly noteworthy, and 'Vesenniye vody' was the perfect song to end on.

Kissin and Hvorostovsky were met with a standing ovation which was rewarded with two encores – Rachmaninov's beautiful song 'V molchani nochi taynoy', and Robert's explosive aria from Tchaikovsky's 'Iolanthe'. The collaboration between singer and pianist was a huge success, and created many moments of intense excitement. I'm not sure I would like all song recitals I attend to be accompanied by virtuoso soloists as opposed to brilliant artists like Roger Vignoles and Martin Katz, but as a once in a while experience of musical gluttony it was frequently beautiful and thrilling.

By John Woods

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