COMPOSERS: Traditional Russian
WORKS: Kachelniye; Ochi chorniye
PERFORMER: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone);; St Petersburg Chamber Choir/Nikolai Korniev
CATALOGUE NO: 456 399-2
In 1991, Hvorostovsky recorded an album of folksongs called Dark Eyes (‘Ochi chorniye’), arguably the best-known Russian folk song of them all. With its massed balalaikas, it was blatantly commercial, but a gloriously soulful performance nonetheless. This follow-up takes its name from what’s probably the second most popular Russian song in the repertoire, but from the unusually sedate opening bars you can tell it’s an altogether more earnest enterprise.
Gone are the balalaikas; instead we have the stark a cappella accompaniment of the St Petersburg Chamber Choir. Their choral singing is technically outstanding: finely balanced, articulated and controlled, especially in the strange swooping glissandi demanded by songs such as ‘Kachelniye’ (Rhyming Song). And Hvorostovsky (on the 10 out of 18 tracks on which he sings) is again on fine form, that familiar burnished baritone heart-stirring and yearningly expressive.
For all its Slavonic fervour, though, the overwhelming effect is ponderous and lugubrious. It’s interesting to trace the influence of this style of singing on the great people’s choruses of so many Russian operas – the peasants in Act I of Eugene Onegin; the epic crowd scenes in Boris Godunov or Khovanshchina. But even when arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich, these songs seem thin and uninspiring by comparison. Claire Wrathall