Dmitri Hvorostovsky/ Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Dmitri Hvorostovsky seems the ideal of a Russian baritone. He marries boyish charm and tenderness with something of the Russian babushka. Sometimes it's as if he's longing to crack up, to unbutton: and when he does, the voice frees up and sounds less like a teenager trying hard at some conservatory: then all the refined, painstaking training comes into its own.

He was born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk; and when he gives us the music of his native land, those glorious Russian vowels get their chance. In three Russian "romances" - cheerful ditties that might have graced Russian royal drawing rooms - complete with accordion and mandolin-cum-balalaika (the exquisite player, Natalia Shkrebko, nearly stole the show), we get to glimpse the recesses of this glorious gullet.

In "Net, ne tebya" - an enchanting Lermontov setting about the nostalgia for lost youthful love - we heard a dead ringer for Onegin, one of Hvorostovsky's finest roles. Here he forsook any hamming for a wistful piano, and the result was enchanting. Likewise in "O yesli b mog virazit" his gentle, relaxed portamenti (slurrings) became a gentle susurration, aptly supporting the text. His second encore, at an almost confidential whisper, with its final hushed "Daleko" ("far off"), chased by horn and a sad accordion monody, was magnificent. Here was haunting artistry.

How, though, could he hammer a song as delicate as de Curtis's evergreen "Voc'e notte"; let alone welly out words such as "Suonno gentile suspiro"? Yet this ("Dicitencello vuie") was one of his best songs. After a splendidly charged Don Giovanni overture, with searing woodwind, from the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Constantine Orbelian (their Lyric Waltz by Dunayevsky was hauntingly beautiful too) he seemed to get his Mozart arias the wrong way round: Giovanni's serenade "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was pretty well roared; while the wine, women and song aria "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa", nearly got lost, as if amid the applause he'd almost forgotten to sing.

The shorter arias, with weakly edited endings, largely didn't work; Handel's "Ombre mai fu", finely delivered, had scant castrato frisson, Gluck's Paride ed Elena, full of yearning ("at last I breathe the air you breathe") cries out for the delicate artistry of a miniature-painter; Hvorostovsky's stage manner as he rounded off was more like a serial-killer. Someone needs to control those meaningless hand gestures.

But Hvorostovsky's snarling lion is worth waiting for. With "Ah per sempre io ti perdei" from the 32-year-old Bellini's last opera I Puritani, we heard the unalloyed power of this magnificent Russian Verdian. This had real weight, tragedy, passion. Terrific.

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