Musorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (orch Shostakovich)

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COMPOSERS: Musorgsky
LABELS: Warner
ALBUM TITLE: Musorgsky – Songs and Dances of Death
WORKS: Songs and Dances of Death (orch Shostakovich)
PERFORMER: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone); St Petersburg Philharmonic/Yuri Temirkanov
CATALOGUE NO: 2564 62050-2
This pairing, surely unique on CD, makes grim good sense: Rachmaninov’s swansong signals his own ‘songs and dances of death’, albeit done with greater esprit than Musorgsky’s studied portraits of death the false friend. Hvorostovsky first recorded the Musorgsky cycle over a decade ago, and the interpretation hasn’t changed much. His warm, beautifully produced baritone is better at seductively setting the scene and presenting the grim reaper (a ‘she’ in Russian tradition) as comforter than at sending shivers down our spine when claws are majestically drawn. The colouring of the crucial narratives is more limited, too, than the many-voiced Galina Vishnevskaya (whose delivery of ‘The Field Marshal’ inspired Britten to write her declamatory part in the War Requiem).

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You may be swayed by Temirkanov’s superbly atmospheric underlining of the perfect Shostakovich orchestration. Only the applause at the end alerted me to the live source – two-thirds, in fact, of a Prom given last August. Engineers Mike Hatch and Neil Pemberton deal well with tricky Albert Hall acoustics: the St Petersburg Philharmonic comes across in all the unforced richness of its string sound and bright, open brass. These Symphonic Dances are light and rhythmic in the outer portions, soulful and very flexible indeed in the central rhapsodies. Other conductors like Neeme Järvi may underline more dramatically the endgame of an unusually metaphysical Rachmaninov; but on his own terms, with his own orchestra, Temirkanov’s view is ultimately thrilling to hear. David Nice