For the later part of her career, Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has apparently settled on a campaign of major conceptual releases covering all-but-unknown repertory, and St. Petersburg fits right in. It's a collection of arias from operas written in the second half of the 18th century for the Russian imperial court, which had imported the best Italian and German composers money could buy. The names of all but Mozart's contemporary Domenico Cimarosa are unknown today. Most of the arias are in Italian, but a couple are in Russian, and to untutored ears Bartoli brings her trademark passion to them. This is the kind of release where one can quibble with any number of details. Bartoli sounds thick in some places, strained in others. The material is a bit uneven, with especially the last two pieces creating a bit of a letdown, although much of it does indeed live up to major-forgotten-works billing. The booklet brings up the Catherine the Great horse legend for no very good reason. Yet, as so often with Bartoli, the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of the objections. She is fearless in many ways here, not just in convincingly bringing home repertory her listeners will never have heard, but in blowing past classifications of vocal range: Bartoli may conventionally be seen as a mezzo, but the material here ranges from full-blown opera seria soprano almost down to contralto in a few cases, where Bartoli's voice takes on a lovely burnished tone. Whatever faults you might find, this is tremendously exciting stuff, not boring for a second. (James Manheim)
Though begun in 1975, Georgy Sviridov's vocal "poem," Petersburg, was completed specifically for Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Mikhail Arkadiev in 1995, and this recording makes it is easy to understand why. Performances of such alchemic beauty and expressive weight only come from the perfect union of music and musicians. Sviridov is the big winner in this situation. Admired and highly decorated during the Soviet era, and creator of a large and impressive body of vocal music, he is still relatively unknown to western audiences. Here, in both Petersburg and the Romances (6) of Pushkin that round out the disc, they can discover a masterful composer who infused his songs with all the lyricism and emotional immediacy of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky while maintaining a distinctly modern voice. No two songs on the album are alike, and yet all speak with one voice. Most importantly, each one grows organically from its poem, turning the cadence of the Russian language into the seeds of melody. Hvorostovsky is at his best, both vocally and interpretively. His distinctively dark, yet brilliant, timbre, his seamless approach to line and legato, and the intensity and range of his expression bring out the best in every song.