Heroes & Villians

Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Philharmonia of Russia/Orbelian (Delos DE3365)

Release Date: November 2007 4 stars

Verdi's Luisa Miller: MusicalCriticism.com CD review

Dmitri Hvorostovsky's latest release is a most enjoyable, if slightly perplexing offering. The first thing one notices on hearing this disc is that the timbre and technique remain fresh and virtually flawless, even though it's nearly two decades since he shot to fame as the winner of the main prize at the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. That the unmistakable beauty of his sound has lost none of its finesse, depth, warmth or colour, and that the ease he always had at the top is undiminished is testament to the fact that he has made largely appropriate repertoire choices throughout his stage career, with an underlying soundness of vocal production throughout.

There are, however, some surprising choices of repertoire for this disc which will raise some questions (and eyebrows) amongst the congnoscenti. Take, for instance, the aria from the title role of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, 'Dastig ya vyshei vlasti'. Few people would be expecting to hear Hvorostovsky's high baritone in this bass role. The results are beautiful – none of the range is beyond him, and it makes a refreshing change to hear the climactic top notes taken and sustained with ease. But for me, this is not Boris. The gains in terms of pure singing detract from the psychology of the character portrayal and the emotional impact of the music. Boris's guilt and sense of oppression stemming from his own shady past come across far more when the top notes are attained with effort in a weightier, darker voice. Hvorostovsky's is a fine performance, but I prefer the visceral thrill of Christoff or Tomlinson in this role.

The disc also includes performances of repertoire which, although most usually done by baritones, is still not naturally or easily associated with Hvorostovsky. Baron Scarpia's 'Te Deum' from Tosca falls into this category. Although one can imagine him carrying out a convincing seduction of Tosca in Act II from a scenic point of view, perhaps a little too easily, anybody who has heard him live will agree that the voice is far from the ideal size for Scarpia. For all its burnished colour, and the smouldering temperament behind it, it is on the small side. Whether this should bother somebody listening to a CD at home or not is a difficult question for me. This 'Te Deum' is dispatched with aplomb and authority, with Hvorostovsky portraying all the dirty, venal lust which he has for Tosca in the preamble before he steals himself to get on with the business of praising God. The performance one hears on CD here stands comparison with any great baritone, and yet I feel somewhat misled, since I know that for me, Hvorostovsky would be inadequate in this role in the theatre.

Other pieces on this disc are a sheer joy. Both of the Demon's arias from Rubinstein's opera of the same name are fantastic, with seemingly endless legato lines, and many examples of Hvorostovsky's miraculous breath-control in evidence, always in the service of the music, but also heart-stopping in its impressiveness. He makes the Demon's outrageous promises to his victim seem believable by couching the lies in tone of rare beauty and allure. This singer is always shown to his very best advantage when performing in his native language, and the third Rubinstein piece from his opera Nero and Igor's aria from Borodin's Prince Igor are also excellent.

The disc also offers what for me is the first opportunity to hear Hvorostovsky sing in German, with Wolfram's 'Oh du mein holder Abendstern' from Tannhäuser. The piece ought to suit this artist down to the ground, relying as it does on long lines and beautiful tone. Unfortunately, Hvorostovsky seems unable to integrate German consonants into his legato in the way that he has mastered in Russian, Italian and, to a lesser extent, French. This, coupled with some slightly peculiar vowel sounds, means that this aria fails to come up to the high vocal standards of the rest of the disc.

The remaining tracks on this well-filled disc are for the most part excellently sung, with the electrifying sexual energy of the Toreador's Song from Carmen deserving special mention. This track is particularly well set-up with a spirited introduction from the Philharmonia of Russia and Constantine Orbelian, who provide high quality support throughout the recital.

Overall, anybody who appreciates fine, full-blooded singing in general, or Dmitri Hvorostovsky in particular, will enjoy this disc. There is a good mixture of familiar and less familiar repertoire, and it differs sufficiently from his previous recital discs to make it a worthwhile addition to any collection. It is fascinating to hear him dip his toe into unexpected roles, and make use of the recording studio to tantalise us with what we are unlikely to experience in real life. I just hope it is not an indication of where he is hoping to take his stage career. Having established himself as the most accomplished and attractive lyric baritone of the current generation, Hvorostovsky is probably in a position these days where he can choose where, when and what he sings – like Boris Godunov, he has 'attained the highest power'. May he continue to use it wisely.

By John Woods