The Recitalist as Rock Star

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The New York Sun

On Wednesday night, Dmitri Hvorostovsky did what he does best: give a recital of Russian songs. I don’t say that this starry baritone – once dubbed “the Siberian tiger” – isn’t an excellent operatic performer. He is. He shines in Russian roles, of course, and he is a worthy Verdian. He can also handle some Mozart roles. But his recitals, in his native repertory, are his special moments.

His performance on Wednesday night took place, not in a recital hall, but in an orchestra hall: Avery Fisher. This was a shame, musically, for intimacy was difficult. But at least there was room for thousands of Dmitri fans, and, boy, were they rowdy. (More about that in a minute.)

Mr. Hvorostovsky devoted the first half of his program to the most famous Shostakovich song cycle, although the composer himself eschewed the word “cycle”: He preferred “suite.” This was the Suite on Words of Michelangelo, Op. 145, written near the end of Shostakovich’s life. It is bleak and deathladen, but also hopeful and serene. A strange and marvelous work, like the man.

Shostakovich made clear that the singer and the pianist must be equal in this suite – and Mr. Hvorostovsky had with him a very capable pianist, the Estonian Ivari Ilja. Mr. Ilja is a frequent partner of the baritone.

If Mr. Hvorostovsky was greeted like a rock star, he looked rather like one, too – with a new, spiky hairdo. You might have thought of Bono. For the Shostakovich, Mr. Hvorostovsky used sheet music, and donned glasses. Somehow, this did not detract from the rock-star impression.

In any case, he was in fine form: the voice glowing, the technique secure. Almost never did his intonation falter. Some of Shostakovich’s intervals are not so easy, and Mr. Hvorostovsky had no problem with them.

In one of the 11 songs – “Dante” – Mr. Hvorostovsky had a crack, or semi-crack, on a high note, but this was quickly forgotten.

Mr. Hvorostovsky’s sense of this suite struck me as right: His tempos were never too slow, and he was conversational, where he needed to be. He refused to get bogged down in profundity – a false profundity. Other singers are heavier in this work, and gloomier. But Mr. Hvorostovsky had the spirit of late, otherworldly Shostakovich.

Mr. Ilja played laudably well. He was solid, determined, sympathetic. In the song “Creativity” – “When my harsh hammer shapes the features of people” – we really heard those hammer blows. And in the final song, “Immortality,” Mr. Ilja conveyed a spooky merriment. That is one of Shostakovich’s more peculiar qualities.

As I’ve said, the crowd was raucous, and they applauded loudly between each song – even between “Death” and “Immortality”! Mr. Hvorostovsky was not unduly bothered, but the suite suffered.

The second half of the program brought 11 songs by eight composers, all on texts of Pushkin. This was a fine organizing principle, and every Russian composer has used Pushkin – how could you not? Some of Mr. Hvorostovsky’s composers were well-known: Glinka, Borodin, Rachmaninoff. Others were less well-known, such as Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-69) and Georgy Sviridov, a composer who died eight years ago, and whom Mr. Hvorostovsky has championed.

This time, Mr. Hvorostovsky had no music in front of him, and no glasses. He sang freely and intelligently – with ample feeling, but little milking. In fact, no milking. He was willing to let the songs speak for themselves, and when those songs were on the sentimental side, Mr. Hvorostovsky’s restraint was all the more welcome. The Russian composers are lucky to have him, even as he is lucky to have them.

In a song by Medtner – “To a Dreamer” – Mr. Hvorostovsky sounded a bit tired, pushing out the volume in this big ol’ hall. But he didn’t break. Mr. Ilja was, again, sympathetic in every song. A song by Vladimir Vlasov (1903-86) – “The Fountains of the Bakhehsari Palace” – involves a stream, “with a ceaseless murmur,” and “lyric tears.” Mr. Ilja sounded much like that stream.

As Dmitri performed his act, his audience went mad, whooping, taking flash pictures, rushing the stage for autographs. (Mr. Hvorostovsky obliged once.) I half-expected the women to rip off their shirts.

And the singer favored his public with four encores – the first three of which were Italian. This was an abrupt departure. It reminded me of a recital once given by Olga Borodina, Mr. Hvorostovsky’s great colleague. The program was all-Russian, but, at encore time, she sang “Ombra mai fu” and “Summertime.” Go figure. (It was nice.)

Mr. Hvorostovsky’s voice and essential style are not at all Italianate, but he loves Italian music, and he always sings “Parlami d’amore, Mariu” with tremendous sincerity, as he did here.

And then he finished the evening as he always does – with an unaccompanied Russian folk song. At the end of the song, when Mr. Hvorostovsky was singing very softly, a jazzy cell phone went off, very loudly. You have to say that this was in the spirit of the evening.

The New York Sun

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