War Songs: Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

It was also a shame the story behind the concert wasn't spelt out, since both Dmitri Hvorostovsky and his conductor Constantine Orbelian had an emotional investment in it. Orbelian's grandfather was shot in the Lubyanka prison, his grandmother was sent to a gulag, and his father fought with the Red Army; both families have sung the same songs on every victory day since; and both men regard songs written during World War II as inspirational art and have taken some of them round the world.

These songs were preceded here by a sequence of arias and dances from late 19th-century operas, with lollipops like the polonaise from Eugene Onegin and Khachaturian's Maskarad interspersing arias from rarely performed operas. Spiritedly backed by the Philharmonia of Russia, this rather ordinary music allowed Hvorostovsky to show his artistry, shaping phrases and colouring words with easy grace. The Yale Alumni Chorus provided a mellifluous backdrop, if too "western": one missed the passionate vividness of a Russian choir.

Once on to the war songs, however, Hvorostovsky and the orchestra took wing. Song after song hymned the peace that soldiers' souls found when they escaped from their blood-soaked trenches, or when they flew back to their Motherland in the form, as one lyric put it, of a pale grey cloud. These songs' creators often doubled as film composers and their imaginings had lurid force. One lyric about how a fiancee's love repeatedly saved a conscript from being shotdid not refer only to suicide, as deserters and stragglers were routinely shot by the NKVD.

The prevailing mood was of melancholy and nostalgia, and the prevailing tone - closer to tango than the blues - was perfectly caught. No prizes for guessing the encores: "Black Eyes" and - with many hankies out - "Moscow Nights".

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