In Russian Program, Hvorostovsky Excels at Shostakovich

United StatesUnited States Glinka, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and others: Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (bass baritone), Ivari Ilja (piano), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 25.5.2014 (HS)

Glinka, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and others: Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin
Shostakovich: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti

Siberian-born bass-baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky can sing Verdi with the best of them, as he reminded us in a stunning encore of Iago’s Credo from Otello Sunday night, filling every crevice in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall with the power of his burnished sound. The core of the recital, however, turned to works in his native Russian.

The first half focused on settings by various Russian composers of poems by Pushkin, a favorite of most Russian speakers for nearly two centuries, the second half a suite of songs by Shostakovich on poems of the great Italian Renaissance man Michelangelo, translated into Russian. The latter were the jewels.

Perhaps Hvorostovsky just needed more time to warm up his voice, but the Pushkin songs in the first half found him reaching tentatively for high notes and, from an interpretive viewpoint, lending almost every song the same straightforward, forceful sound that left little room for variety and subtlety of phrasing. It didn’t help that most of the songs proceeded at a moderate tempo. Not until the final song of the 13, Sviridov’s suggestive little beer-hall dance to “Drawing near to Izhory,” did a fast tempo arrive, and boy was it welcome.

It also didn’t help that an enthusiastic audience applauded after every song, even when the singer pointedly did not acknowledge the interruptions. Perhaps he felt, with the emotional atmosphere broken, he had to rebuild the scene with each song.

Audience interruptions reached a point of absurdity in the gentle close of Rachmaninoff’s “Do not sing to me, fair maiden,” when a moment of what should have been breathless silence before the final line was interrupted by applause. In the Shostakovich suite, enthusiastic clapping interrupted the first phrases of a quiet song meant to be performed without pause. It felt more like a jazz set in a smoky nightclub than a vocal recital.

(Bryn Terfel, by the way, handles these moments of enthusiasm with humor. He often smiles at the audience and says, “if you go on applauding after each song we’ll be here all night.” Audiences get the message, and they’re not insulted.)

Hvorostovsky’s curious lack of diversity in vocal sound certainly did not reflect the songs themselves, which varied from precious miniatures to extended moments of full-on passion. But Cui’s wry eight-line take on “A statue in Tsarskoye Selo” needed a more conversational tone to express the wit, and Glinka’s “The fire of longing burns in my heart” fell short on the ardor the words evoked. They both got more or less the same interpretation.

The three Glinka songs that opened the program (“Fire” was the middle one) lay a bit high for Hvorostovsky, but the rest of the songs made more use of his resonant middle voice and solid lower register, especially Borodin’s “For the shores of this far native land,” for which the singer exploited more nuance in the melodic line. He articulated a long arc from quiet to climax and back. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The cloud flees before the wind” rolled out in a single mezzo-forte, leaving the nuances to the words.

A Tchaikovsky song, “The nightingale,” finally drew a conversational approach, the spacious music almost insisting upon more subtlety of interpretation. Hvorostovsky’s ability to create magic came through in moments such as the final phrases of “Gone are my heart’s desires,” Medtner’s simple setting of the line, translated as “I’m a forgotten, shivering leaf,” in a descending minor scale sending, appropriately, shivers down my spine. Medtner’s penchant for complex piano music came through in his “To a dreamer,” where the fast-moving keyboard embellishments are in contrast to the singer’s long line. The three Medtner songs constituted the highlight of the set.

Pianist Ivari Ilja, who has toured with Hvorostovsky for a decade, distinguished himself with playing of clarity and precision, delicacy where needed and power where demanded. In many instances in the first half he supplied more emotional variety than the singer did.

The pianist’s sense of singular purpose paid dividends in the Shostakovich suite, which also found Hvorostovsky more pliant in his interpretations. Or perhaps he just found more depth to Shostakovich’s vocal line. One wouldn’t think that Shostakovich’s writing could be more expressive and grateful to the voice than Tchaikovsky’s, Borodin’s or Rachmaninoff’s, but in this case it was.

Texts provided Russian transliterations and English translations, but not Michelangelo’s original Italian. Still, the translations gave enough touchstones to explain the bleakness of the opening song, “Truth,” reflected in a cold, sustained vocal tone, and the tenderness of Hvorostovsky’s slow and thoughtful rendering of “Morning.” There was a stateliness to “Separation” and power to “Anger.” It was puzzling that Hvorostovsky sang a stanza about the divinity of Dante with even more anger, but the fluidity of his line against the hammer blows of the piano in “Creativity” fashioned a moment of breathtaking power.

Shostakovich’s set is admittedly indulgent, written in 1974, shortly before the cpmposer’s own death. Ill, wracked with pain after a life battered by constant fear of what the Soviet government might do to him, the composer wrote self-referential music of despair. Even the final song in the set, Michelangelo’s articulation of “Immortality,” gets a skippy little tune for an introduction. It goes beyond the composer’s trademark sardonic wit into taunting. As the piano mocked, Hvorostovsky ended with quiet defiance.

The Verdi encore embodied a different kind of defiance, of course. But its inherent drama was of a more emotionally direct sort than the Russian bleakness. It sent everyone home with a big-boned major chord and resounding high note ringing in their ears.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment