Returning after serious illness, Hvorostovsky proves once again he's Czar of Russian song

By Raymond Beegle
Monday, March 7, 2016

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Baritone
Ivari Ilja, Piano
Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York
Songs of Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss

‘The Russians, more than any other people, love poetry…” wrote Nadezhda Mandelsstam. “The proof is that they are the only nation whose government persecutes its poets.” This ardent love for the Russian word has always been evident in the singing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky who many consider, I among them, the greatest singer, the greatest truth teller, of our time. Tonight, the words of major and minor Russian poets rang with even deeper meaning than in the past by virtue of circumstances not usually taken into consideration by reviewers. They were, however so much part of the fabric of the performance that it would be a disservice to the reader not to speak of them. The public that rose to its feet and cheered Hvorostovsky when he appeared on stage knew of his devastating, possibly fatal illness, and knew as well of the possibility that his voice might not be heard again. One did not know what to expect when a diminished figure walked on stage and made his way to the crook of the piano. The fact that there was a music stand was not encouraging. Then the music began and the familiar dark, lustrous voice, produced with the same assurance and ease, filled the hall once more. “Do not demand songs from the singer when troubles of life have sealed his lips…” he sang, and one listened with a deeper awareness than usual of how precious music can be and how fragile is the life of the musician, or anyone else, for that matter.

The songs on the first half, romances and ballads of Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov are not terribly demanding vocally, nor are they long or particularly complex. That does not mean that they are not profound. They surpass the depth of the canzonas of Bellini and Donizetti that inspired them, essentially because of the higher quality of the Russian verses. Not the wind, which blows from the heights has a simple melodic line and a simply crafted accompaniment of no particular innovative significance, but one that faithfully mirrors the subtleties of pulse, nuances, and dramatic shifts of Alexei Tolstoy’s text.

More demanding were the four Tchaikovsky pieces that followed intermission, all of which are common to the artist’s programs and recordings.  The heroic I bless thee, forest was for this listener the finest moment of the recital. It is perhaps Tchaikovsky’s most ecstatic song, and one felt, that its expansive sentiment was not a sham in the voice and the heart of this artist.

It is impossible to say that there is only one holy, orthodox, authentic style in which to sing the works of Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Chaliapin took extravagant liberty with tempo and rhythm; Dolukhanova shaped her phrases with supple, pronounced rubato; Hvorostovsky stays closer to the letter of the law, taking into consideration all the suggestions of the composer found on the printed page with a certain respectful modesty. All of these approaches can be justifiably called “authentic” and each of them carries a deep message.  It seems to me, however that D’mitri Hvorostovsky has set a standard, or model for Russian song that Lotte Lehmann, decades earlier, set for the German Lied. This is a golden standard.  As with Lehman, Hvorostovsky’s genius for the written word, for obliterating any border between mind and heart, for the absolute unity of verse and music, for the sense that whatever he sings is the song he loves best, and that it is possible he will never sing it again, was especially apparent tonight.

The German Lied is a rather new venture for this baritone, whose repertoire is almost exclusively in the Italian or Russian language.  Of course his usual integrity was evident, the same deep understanding of the words, which, once again, hinted at personal circumstances, but the words did not flow quite so easily as did the words of Pavlov or Pushkin. One had the feeling of someone walking circumspectly in new clothes, not quite at home with the fall of the fabric and it’s shaping to the natural contours of the body. Even so, Befreit was delivered with great emotional power, and the quiet assurance of Morgen made one realize how, with only the finest artist, not only the emotion of the poet, the composer, and the singer, is revealed to his public, but also the vulnerable, human being, the mortal, subject to all the trials and difficulties common to all souls, is revealed as well.

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.