Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Moscow Chamber Orchestra
Spiritual Revival Choir of Russia
Constantine Orbelian (conductor)
DELOS DE 3315
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Patriotic songs, as a genre, don’t have an in-built guarantee of musical quality. That applies across the board. One has only to think of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, arguably the composer’s most embarrassing effort with its formulaic flourishes and tub-thumping cliches, or Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory once described by Hendrik Willem van Loon as “the worst trash ever signed by a supreme genius”.
While the passion attached to patriotic songs is, more often than not, quite genuine, this, in itself, is no guarantee of musical worth. There are innumerable songs of this sort that are embarrassingly bad – and the many marching songs sung by German troops during World War II come with brutally horrific associations that place them on the outermost rim of the outer anyway. The Horst Wessel Lied, for instance, sung to a melody of a music hall song popular with German troops in World War I, is forever tainted by its subsequent adoption by the Nazis.
On the other hand, many of the songs that sprang up around Russia during what the then-Soviet Union termed the Great Patriotic War are strikingly different to many German war-time songs. Many of the Russian genre are the antithesis of the swashbuckling, macho, bully-boy variety of song favoured by the SS. In fact, most are informed by a tenderness and yearning that stem from a profound sadness, even grief, at the violation of mother country.
I especially admired track 4 from which the collection derives its title; its closing measure are the quintessence of tenderness. And track 5 – On a Nameless Hill – is a recollection of cameraderie when under attack from Messerschmitt planes.
Choir and orchestra, under Constantine Orbelian, consistently come up trumps in support of their dazzling vocal soloist.
What makes this compilation particularly attractive is the extraordinary voice of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. It is the sort of vocal instrument critics dream about but seldom if ever encounter in reality. The quality of sound is so ravishingly beautiful that it would make compelling listening even if used to give a recital of the prevailing stock exchange prices or Rossini’s famous ‘laundry list’.
Hvorostovsky’s voice is one that places the critic in the agreeable predicament of having to grope for adjectives to describe its wondrous qualities; the sound equivalent of molten chocolate or the feel and appearance of plush velvet are similes that come to mind. And when employed in songs that have a built-in melancholy and poignancy, the effect is almost overwhelming. I cannot imagine anyone failing to be moved by these exquisitely wrought performances. If you’re familiar with Hvorostovsky’s artistry, no further recommendation is necessary. And if you are coming to this astonishing voice for the first time, you’re in for a unique treat.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn