14 Nov 2007

Portraits of Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Olga Borodina

Philips decided some time ago that it no longer needed to be the audio representative for two fine contemporary singers of Russian origin, mezzo Olga Borodina and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

But the company is more than happy to recycle selections from the recordings the two artists made for the label and issue them in two-CD sets in their "Portrait" series.

The slim booklets for each set feature a cover photograph of the artist, with both clutching themselves and turning an enigmatic, suggestive smile to the camera. After the track listing comes a short bio in three languages, and then a page of all the producers, engineers, and recording locales of the original releases. No texts, of course.

As a retrospective of each singer's early maturity, the Hvorostovsky Portrait has an edge over Borodina's. CD 1 of the baritone's set has three Verdi arias from a recording with Valery Gergiev, and then 5 bel canto selections with Ion Marin. Then Gergiev returns, leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic in providing Hvorostovsky's support for the big Tchaikovsky baritone arias from Eugene Onegin and Pique Dame. The Kirov plays for Gergiev in the final 5 tracks of more Russian repertory (Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein, and Rimsky-Korsakov).

This gives the listener an excellent taste of Hvorostovsky's operatic skills, his gorgeous tone and enviable breath control on display in every selection. Some find the voice almost too pretty for Verdi, but surely the baritone's Rodrigo from Don Carlo is without peer on the contemporary opera scene. The Largo al factotum is high-spirited, even without that traditional last falsetto cry of "Feeee-ga-ro." In the Russian pieces, the years have only added to the artist's depth of characterization, though these early 1990's recordings certainly satisfy on the sheer basis of vocal splendour.


Disc two begins with some "antiche arien," including Handel's Ombra mai fu. As Borodina also sings this on her set, this allows for a point of comparison. The mezzo lets her gorgeous voice fill out the melodic line, lusciously but ostentatiously. Hvorostovsky somehow seems to let his voice support the melody's innate loveliness, rather than compete with it, and his version is the lovelier for it. Some Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs follow, with piano accompaniment. An excellent recitalist, Hvorostovsky manages the tricky feat of making a recording feel like an intimate encounter. The dramatic conclusion of the set comes with Gergiev again leading the Kirov as the baritone sings the Shostakovich orchestration of Moussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death." Hvorostovsky's is not the darkest of voices, and he doesn't try to force an ugly edge. Instead, the very silkiness of his delivery plays against the text in a way that presents a sinister effect. There are more potent versions, but the music is very well served.

Borodina's set does more skipping around in musical eras. It starts with Dalila's big aria, then two from Rossini's Rosina. The Ombra mai fu is followed by Preziosilla's numbers from the Gergiev La Forza del Destino set. Instead of showing off the singer's versatility, unfortunately, this arrangement tends to emphasize the sameness of her artistic approach, which basically amounts to a reliance on the beauty of her instrument over characterization. Yes, she can sing Ponchielli, and Berlioz, and Purcell - but the singing doesn't reflect much of an awareness that these are very different composers.

The second disc, thankfully, is dedicated to Russian repertory (except for three quite charming songs from Falla's Siete canciones populares espaƱolas. Whether in song or opera, Borodina in her native tongue has a life and a sensitivity in her singing less apparent in other languages. Here the undeniable lusciousness of her instrument is partnered with a detailed interpretative stance, and the greatness of her artistry is undeniable. The disc ends with a luscious performance of a Psalm from Rachmaninoff's Vespers. Even the famously glum Rachmaninoff would have smiled at the beauty here.

The many original releases that both these compilations came from would be very hard to track down these days, so fans of either singer who missed out on those discs should look for these "Portrait" CDs.

Chris Mullins