Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Ivari Ilja at Barbican Hall [Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, Tchaikovsky]

Automne, Op.18/3; Sylvie, Op.6/3; Après un rêve, Op.7/1; Fleur jetée, Op.39/2
Ljudi spjat, Op.17/10; Menuet, Op.26/9; Ne veter, veja s vysoty, Op.17/5; Zimnii put, Op.32/4; Stalaktity, Op.26/6; B’jotsja serdce bespokojnoje, Op.17/9
Three Sonnets of Petrarch
6 Romances, Op.73

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) & Ivari Ilja (piano)

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 21 October, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There’s plenty to be said about Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Barbican Hall recital, but let’s get the audience out of the way first. And if only we could have done. What is it with the Siberian baritone’s fan-base that large numbers of them feel entitled to cough so openly and take flash photographs so brazenly? To clap through the piano epilogue to the first of Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets and to douse the dying embers of Tchaikovsky’s opening Romance with the Nokia ring tone? To pounce on the last note of every single song in a race to applaud first and loudest? Such disdain for the emotional impact of great music demonstrates that some in the audience were there for the singer, not the song (and for the handsome baritone’s laconic, matinée-idol demeanour too; a quality that Hvorostovsky cultivated rather shamelessly at times).

The talent is prodigious, of course, and the music-making was often breathtaking. Accompanied by the unfailingly sympathetic Estonian pianist Ivari Ilja, Hvorostovsky set the tone for the evening by striding onto the platform and striking a pose – and a pause – that sent out an unmistakable message: tonight, ladies and gentlemen, high art meets showbiz. And so it proved.

The opening Fauré songs made a surprising amuse-gueule – the honeyed world of the mélodie is not an obvious match for this voice – yet what they lost in Gallic elegance they gained in stylish newness. Hvorostovsky’s French pronunciation was serviceable at best, and at the last line of Sylvie, “Tout pour mon coeur / N’est que douleur” (For my heart, all is suffering) he affected the most bizarrely inappropriate grin; nevertheless, by replacing the watercolours of these small masterpieces with the vocal equivalent of blood and oil, familiar music felt new-minted. No-one could have anticipated his risky choice of full-on vocal projection and long-breathed phrasing in Après un rêve, yet the result was hypnotically effective.

The move to Russian song brought with it a palpable easing of tension. Taneyev’s music could have been written for this voice, so attuned is its tone to the idiom of both text and setting. Ljudi spjat (All are sleeping) showed Ilja at his generous best, while the extended strophic verse of Menuet allowed the singer to indulge in some vivid storytelling where mood turned on a sixpence. By the time Hvorostovsky reached the free-flowing confidence of the third song, Ne veter, veja s vysoty (Not the wind, blowing from the heights), he had left Fauré far behind. Ironically, perhaps, it was Schubert who galloped into view with the brilliant Zimnii put (The winter road), in which the piano’s frantic horse-hooves morph into the sound of a spinning wheel. This is a marvellous song, and Stalaktity (Stalactites) which followed is even better: a gentle, hanging melody in the pianist’s right hand cradles a sturdy melody upon which elongated vocal figures pile one on another. If there is a common thread to all of these songs it is their unbridled, singer-friendly fervour. No question: we need to hear more Taneyev.

Turning to Liszt, Hvorostovsky mined new seams. Radiance and delight in ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ (Oh when I sleep) gave way to colossal, god-like volume in the first Petrarch Sonnet, and dolcezza in its truest sense at the close of the second. If Liszt was the golden heart of the recital, the Six Romances of Tchaikovsky found singer and pianist come close to attaining a seraphic grace. From the sleeping river’s lapping rhythms that open the first of these Daniil Rathaus settings to the passion and drama that infuse the last two songs, this was music-making of the highest order. As for the fetching pair of encores (a spot of Rachmaninov and a Neapolitan folk song), they may have broken the spell but at least they sent the Dmitriati home happy.

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