MUSIC / Looking good: Adrian Jack on Dmitri Hvorostovsky

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The Independent Culture
DMITRI Hvorostovsky, the Siberian baritone, has the kind of virile yet velvety voice that reduces many to mush. He shot to fame in this country after winning the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and has since appeared internationally both as an opera singer and recitalist. He also has a recording contract with Philips.

Hvorostovsky is handsome and makes the most of it. He walked on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon like a charmer sure of his conquests. With his casually sweeping haircut, he looked immaculate, and his bows and smiles, alternately solemn and engaging, were a performance in themselves. In the first half, all songs by Tchaikovsky, he also used his large, broad face constantly, playing with his eyes as if in response to a kaleidoscopic succession of emotions and impressions. It didn't always seem possible that they fitted the words.

Launched on the romantic surge of Mikhail Arkadiev's piano-playing, the voice sounded, at first, smaller and thinner than expected, yet clean and steady. The first two songs were ardently delivered, but it took the third, a vision of a fascinating woman at a ball, to bring out specific points of vocal colour, like catching the breath at the thrill of recall.

Still, there was altogether more characterisation than in Hvorostovsky's last recital in this hall, and that was probably because this programme was all in Russian, every syllable of which he relished. Yet his face and body conveyed much of the expression, which was just as well for most of us. So there were no smiles but appropriate gravity in 'The love of a dead man' and much spreading of the arms to match the pantheistic sentiments of 'I bless you, forests'. Two quiet songs, 'My genius, my angel' and 'On golden cornfields', drew perfectly controlled singing, long quiet phrases.

There were mutterings in the interval that this was all very well but rather too much of the same, though there were plenty of fans cooing contentedly too. I found the second half much less enjoyable. It began with a song by Borodin whose long, slowly ascending phrases inhibited the free flow of Hvorostovsky's tone. Then three flatulent and fulsome songs by Rimsky-Korsakov simply showed how good Tchaikovsky's were by comparison. As the poet of one of them observed, 'the harmonies of verse are like divine enigmas which cannot be revealed.'

Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, small, gruesome dramas describing the horror of lives cut short in infancy, youth, drunken destitution and on the battlefield, yielded rather less than they should, not because the singer was short of understanding or commitment, but simply because his voice didn't, perhaps couldn't, take on the required extremes of character. It conveyed too little real threat, anxiety, grief, or sheer annihilating malevolence to make these more than token depictions.

At the end, Hvorostovsky decided he had had enough of northern gloom and flitted off to the land of smiles, with encores by Caldara, Paisiello and, as a real tear-jerker, Riccardo's aria from Bellini's I Puritani.