Dmitri Hvorostovsky and his adoring fans/Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy Carnegie Hall

To Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recitals, there is a sameness—a pleasing sameness. He sings groups of Russian songs. And a smattering of other songs. His fans are adoring. They applaud after every song, not waiting until the end of the group (and the singer does not discourage them). Sometimes, the recitals are like rock concerts, as when Hvorostovsky struts out in shiny black leather pants. The crowd screams.

At the end of the evening, for his final encore, he sings a Russian folk song, without accompaniment. This seems to come from “the soul of Russia” (to use a cliché). It is touching, and very musical.

Last night, Hvorostovsky—the Russian baritone, the “Siberian tiger,” as I call him—sang a recital in Carnegie Hall. The fans were adoring, of course. But the evening had a slightly soberer aspect. Last summer, Hvorostovsky underwent treatment for a brain tumor. This recital had an air of defiance, bravery, and triumph.

Will I have to make allowances in my review? No. Things were basically the same as always. Hvorostovsky had a music stand nearby, whether for the notes or merely the words, I don’t know. Has he always had a stand with him? Frankly, I can’t remember.

His Russian sets were by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky, in that order. He ended with a Strauss set—five of that composer’s greatest hits. In the Russian sets, he sounded like himself. (He looked like himself too, at least from my seat.) Everything was stable. Hvorostovsky stood and sang with total self-possession, as if a strong wind couldn’t budge him.

He was just singing songs, rather than performing a recital. Do you know what I mean by that? The songs came out of his mouth naturally. They weren’t art songs so much as song songs. He has always been at home in Russian music (of course). He has always been most comfortable in his own language (who isn’t?). When singing Italian, he can sound contained, pillowed. Not so much in Russian.

His intonation was accurate and steady. His top was free and beautiful, as when he sang little F’s. They were completely unstraining.

In all, he showed his classic long-breathed lyricism. He is known for those long, long breaths. At the end of one song, by Rimsky-Korsakov, he nearly ran out of breath, which was very surprising. I don’t think I had ever heard that before.

His pianist, as usual, was Ivari Ilja, from Estonia. He showed his usual good judgment. His precise yet feeling pianism. Ilja is the kind who can give you a clean Romanticism, neither overpedaled nor dry, neither purple nor puny.

He is a quirky, courtly guy, too. I often mention two things: He tends to coordinate his bows with Hvorostovsky, watching him like a hawk and then bowing at the same time. And when the page-turner is female, he insists on letting her exit the stage first.

Let me pause for a personal confession: I have always liked Russian songs, and they have always sounded essentially the same to me, no matter the composer. I’m sure this is a matter of cultural grounding. To Russians (and others), do all German art songs sound the same? Possibly so. (They sometimes run together for me too, honestly.)

And yet Hvorostovsky sang a Glinka song called “Bolero”—a distinctive song indeed. He also sang a Tchaikovsky song called “The Nightingale,” words by Pushkin. It is a typical song (and typically wonderful). Let me tell you that I had to smile: I’ve often said that a German song can’t go a stanza without the words “Die Nachtigall.” It seems to be a law of lieder.

In his Strauss set, Hvorostovsky was not at home. The songs seemed foreign to him, although he is obviously musical enough to sing anything, and I would gladly hear him sing anything. Also, he was out of gas, vocally. He was rough around the edges. His big F in “Befreit” had nothing. It was a total force.

But so what? Hvorostovsky was back, singing. It seemed he would leave without doing his unaccompanied folk song. The lights in the hall were turned up. But people were on their feet applauding, reluctant to leave. And out he came to sing it. It was more moving than ever.


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