Pushkin Romances

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Borodin,Cui,Dargomyzhsky,Glinka,Medtner,Rachmaninov and Sviridov,Rimsky-Korsakov,Tchaikovsky,Vlasov
LABELS: Delos
PERFORMER: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone), Ivari Ilja (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: DE 3392

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For the Russians, Pushkin is Shakespeare and Byron combined, the founding father of literature in the native language and the originator of its literary forms from folk tale to historical drama, from cynical dandyism to social protest and passionate love lyric.

His poetry’s proverbially musical, but unlike some great verse it both inspires and repays musical settings. Just about every major Russian composer has set some of his work, from operas like Eugene Onegin to the lyrical songs in this recital. 

Pushkin settings dominate many Russian song recordings, but at present this seems to be the only dedicated collection by a male singer. It’s a good selection, too. Pushkin’s friend Glinka occupies a comparable position in Russian music, and had hoped to collaborate with him on an opera.

The programme opens with four of his settings, including the masterly ‘I recall a wonderful moment’ and the Spanish-flavoured ‘Night Zephyr’. What follows ranges from fairly familiar to less usual; if there’s nothing spectacularly new, there’s no dead wood either, and a persuasive unity and consistency of feeling – created by Pushkin’s own style, no doubt, but due also to Hvorostovsky’s compelling delivery.

We have Borodin’s ‘For the Shores of thy far native land’, and the giants Tchaikovsky, with the melancholy ‘Nightingale’, and Rimsky – ‘The Clouds Begin To Scatter’ with its expressive piano part, well taken by Ilja, and ‘On The Hills of Georgia’, in the composer’s sensuous, exotic hues.

Glinka’s follower Dargomyzhsky contributes an effective miniature, ‘The Youth and the Maiden’, and even Cui, weediest of the ‘Mighty Handful’ composers, provides two quite memorable pieces. And there’s a welcome 20th-century presence, too, headed by Rachmaninov’s early ‘Don’t Sing to me, Fair Maiden’ with its echoes of the Polovtsian Dances, but also featuring less famous but no less impressive figures such as Medtner, with the swirlingly lyrical ‘Winter Evening’, Svidirov, and Vlasov’s elegant ‘Fountain at Bakhchisarai’. 

Bringing them all to life is Hvorostovsky’s performance – passionate, brooding or forceful with Pushkin’s flowing lines, in a manner which might be a bit overpowering in less emotional music, but is exactly right for these songs.

The more so, because it isn’t wild or uncontrolled in the bad old Slavic style; his dark baritone has lost remarkably little of the suave sheen that distinguished his 1990s romance collections (Philips), and his word-sense and diction remain exemplary, in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nightingale’ for example. Estonian Ivari Ilja is an equally spirited accompanist.

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Some recitals, however worthy, if played straight through may send the unwary critic’s nose sliding down into score or keyboard. This one kept me wide awake and fascinated. Michael Scott Rohan