Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Kindertotenlieder; Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone (Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder); Håkan Hagegård, baritone (Wunderhorn). Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Gary Bertini. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.
Rachmaninoff: Vespers, op. 37. Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, conducted by Victor Popov. Delos. $16.99.
Pearls of Traditional Music. Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, conducted by Victor Popov. Delos. $16.99.
To Russia with Love: St. Petersburg, September 25, 2006. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $19.99 (DVD).
Here are four distinct ways to enjoy listening to vocal music, each with different things to recommend it. The Mahler CD, featuring recordings from 1992 and 1993, includes some wonderful singing by Thomas Quasthoff, some fine orchestral playing, and well-modulated conducting by the late Gary Bertini (who died in 2005). But it is a somewhat curious mixture of material: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is a studio recording, Kindertotenlieder was recorded live, and the four songs offered from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are studio recordings that do not showcase Håkan Hagegård at his best – his voice sounds pinched, and the orchestra quite overpowers him in effectiveness in Revelge. The complete lack of texts is also an irritation: the fact that the words to Mahler’s songs are available elsewhere does not justify omitting them from this recording. Still, Quasthoff’s voice has such sonorous depths and projects so much emotion that the CD has a great deal going for it, even if it is not quite of the first water.
Listeners who prefer choral music – pure choral music, without orchestra – will enjoy both the new releases by Victor Popov and the Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, which Popov founded in 1991 as the successor to the Moscow Choral College, which he had previously led for 21 years. The CD of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers offers a chance to hear one of the two works that the composer himself considered his best (the other being The Bells); in fact, Rachmaninoff asked that the fifth movement of the Vespers be sung at his funeral. Dating to 1915 and often referred to as All-Night Vigil, this work is really a sort of “Vespers plus,” since only the first six of its movements use texts from the Russian Orthodox hour of Vespers. But no quibbling over the work’s name or provenance detracts from the grandeur and beauty of Rachmaninoff’s setting, which includes three different styles of chant and is famously demanding of the basses. Popov and his chorus present the work both stylishly and with suitable liturgical seriousness, although this CD may not be a highly moving experience for those outside the Russian Orthodox tradition.
Pearls of Traditional Music showcases the same conductor and ensemble in very different music, performing 18 folk and folklike songs from Russia, Georgia and Ukraine. The well-known “Boatman’s Song” is here, and so are such gems as “Dark Eyes” and “Twelve Robbers” – two songs of very different mood. It is interesting to hear the works whose composers are known (including “The Ural Rowan,” “Red Sarafan” and “Nightingale,” the first three songs on the CD) and listen to the similarities between them and the traditional folk tunes. The chorus handles the many different moods of the music with just the right amount of gravity or levity, as the case may be. The CD will be of most interest to fans of choral music who are looking for something focusing on works that are comparatively unfamiliar, at least to most people in North America.
The Dmitri Hvorostovsky DVD offers a fair helping of similar music, here for solo singer and instrumental ensemble; and there are some orchestral interludes as well, such as the waltz from Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite and the Spanish dance from Shostakovich’s music for the film Gadfly. In addition to the attraction of seeing Hvorostovsky as well as listening to him, the DVD offers some presentations of the folk tunes by a St. Petersburg group called Style of Five Folk Ensemble, which joins the Moscow Chamber Orchestra for a number of the songs. This is a thoroughly good-natured performance, recorded live and making it clear just how much the audience was enjoying itself. Even the encores are part of the fun: one is, of all things, “O Sole Mio.” Hvorostovsky has a solid, resonant voice that works well in this music, which he delivers straightforwardly; nothing is overdone here. The repertoire may not be to all listeners’ or viewers’ tastes, but fans of this fine singer will certainly enjoy both seeing and hearing him.