Heavyweight champion

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the baritone who beat Bryn Terfel, tells Michael Church how he did it
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THE Wigmore Hall is packed for a lieder recital: the critics are out in force for the premiere of a work by an octogenarian Russian called Georgii Sviridov. But such an obscure beast could never draw a crowd like this, where musical anoraks are outnumbered by glitterati, and CNN cameras are posted in the aisles. No, the excitement centres on a figure who bursts like a thoroughbred into the paddock: burly, gracefully at ease, and shaking a glossy silver mane. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Siberian baritone who pipped Bryn Terfel to the post as Cardiff Singer of the Year, is consolidating his position as darling of the recital circuit.

He opens with songs by Tchaikovsky: "Only the heart that's ached with longing for a meeting", "Why?", and "Again, I am alone". Exquisite misery, rendered with supreme felicity: the death of happiness declaimed with arms flung wide in a warm, smooth tone, and with an opulence of manner which seems to hail from a less hag-ridden age. It's a quintessentially Russian performance.

When you get this singer to look back over his first 34 years, you realise that everything else about his story - the obstacles, the opportunities, the ruthless determination to triumph - is quintessentially Russian too. Only a Russian would respond as he does, when I ask about the publicity machine which has propelled him into the limelight. Western performers affect to treat such things with fastidious disdain. Dmitri gives me a level look: "I have not been happy with the way the publicity machine was functioning for me. I have recently taken steps to make it work better." No mock-modest shame - in fact, quite the reverse.

"Dmitri": it's the only word on the front of his new CD of folk songs and popular arias. Dmitri as in "Dmitri and Bryn" - a baritone circus, some hopefully claim, to supplant Placido, Luciano, and Jose. But the walls of the drawing-room in his Islington house - so sparsely elegant it scarcely feels lived in - are adorned with other heroes: Mattia Battistini, the king of baritones, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, and Enrico Caruso.

"When I was at the conservatory," he says, "I listened all day to these people. I tried to copy the tricks they used, their pronunciation, the way they breathed. And I listened to Chaliapin [the Russian bass], a great actor. From just one bar, you could tell what sort of character he was playing." Dmitri's English is wonky, and he mispronounces singing as "sinning", but his speaking voice is as beguiling as his singing voice on stage.

Though his route to the conservatory was bumpy, his beginnings were auspicious. His mother was a singer; his father, a chemical engineer, was an amateur pianist. (He has now, at the ripe old age of 59, launched himself as a singer in his own right.) Like many other Eastern Bloc children whose parents toiled from dawn to dusk in factories, Hvorostovsky was brought up by his grandmother. She did what all Russian grandmothers do - she taught him folk songs.

Krasnoyarsk, where he was born, is only a medium-sized industrial city but - this being Russia - it's well provided with orchestras and music schools. From the age of seven, he spent six days a week at a specialist school where he sang, played piano, and studied conducting, harmony and music history. By the time he left at 14, he hated music.

"I was very badly taught, by a teacher who convinced me I was no good. When someone is slapping your hands every day, telling you you're rubbish and your work is all wrong - when this goes on for seven years you end up believing them." Meanwhile his voice had broken: early, at 12. "My father made me stay silent for two years. He said if I ever wanted to sing, I must not damage my voice by singing now. He took me to see a movie about a boy who sang in his adolescence, and ruined his voice. That really scared me." The fear of vocal damage runs like a leitmotiv through his conversation.

After an obedient two-year silence he went back on stage, though in a different guise. "I was quite wild, did a lot of sport, got into enough fights to become a professional boxer, but instead became a pop singer." This was at a time when the Stones, the Bee Gees, Kiss and Deep Purple were all the rage, though officially forbidden. "I played keyboards and was the soloist for a band. We composed our own rock operas, and played at Pioneer camps. I sang in a high tenor - and somehow avoided doing my voice permanent damage. Gradually I realised my voice was getting thicker and darker, and so loud it was breaking microphones."

Next, at his father's insistence, he signed up at the local school for chorus conductors where he and 15 other aspiring pop singers took it in turns to wield the baton to Tchaikovsky and Verdi. He was also sent to an 83-year-old singing guru who dramatically widened his register. "But I realised that my best qualities were in the middle range - dark and velvety, but always bright" - is this a voice, or a vintage claret? - "so, to preserve my brightness, I enrolled at the local conservatory."

Here he encountered another gorgon, but one whose ferocity he respected. "She would try and break me down before I went on stage, telling me I was hopeless. She systematically broke my will, till I went to her in tears and asked why. It was to encourage me to fight. 'You're going to share the stage with people who want to destroy you,' she said. 'If you react, you're lost.' Now I know the truth of that. You have to be 100 per cent good. If you're only 99 per cent, forget it." This, he believes, is why he beat Terfel. "It's essential to win competitions, especially if you're from Siberia."

Terfel recently told me that, baritone though he is, tenors are the singers he listens to for pleasure. Who does Hvorostovsky listen to off duty? "It used to be pop music and jazz, but now I can't afford to tire myself by listening." Tire yourself? "Yes. If I listen to vocal music, my muscles are working in sympathy - it's a reflex. As a sportsman looks after his muscles, I must look after my throat." He strokes it tenderly. "I have given up smoking and alcohol, and I don't risk cold drinks. I drink lukewarm tea. I've got an incredibly fragile and expensive gift, and I can't afford to have a problem." Momentarily he seems hunted and desperate. Then he looks down at his sturdy chest, and slaps his biceps. "I work out a lot in the gym. I'm in pretty good shape. So, no complaints at present."

Indeed, his life seems to be bowling along nicely. He's doing La Traviata at Covent Garden in July, and Don Carlos at the Proms under Bernard Haitink: he is now ready to tackle the heavyweight Verdi roles he had been conscientiously putting off till his vocal maturity. Meanwhile, his ex-ballerina wife is about to give birth to twins. "A boy and a girl. All any man could wish for."

On the wall, among the basses and divas, is an icon. Is he religious? "Not really. Well, after my own fashion. I don't like this affectation Russians now put on, about being religious again. But I've got my own god, and obviously we are getting along fine together!" Just so long as he keeps on winning.

! 'La Traviata': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), 10, 13, 16 Jul (see special offer, Real Life, page 14). 'Don Carlos': Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), 20 Jul. 'Dmitri' is out now on Philips Classics (CD/tape).

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