Hvorostovsky / Kissin, Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was Dmitri Hvorostovsky's birthday – but it was he who was bestowing the gifts. Songs by Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Rachmaninov, many touched by an abiding melancholy, filled Barbican Hall – yet the singing of them seemed to alleviate bitterness and turn lost love into something to be wholeheartedly embraced. Such is the nature of Russian song.

And such is Hvorostovsky's physical and vocal charisma. The shock of silver hair, the formal stance – hands by the sides – all at once abandoned to operatic high drama, with imploring arms flung wide, the stern countenance suddenly wreathed in smiles. His adoring public were quickly reeled in.

But what was more extraordinary about this recital was his collaborator – a Russian superstar unaccustomed to sharing the limelight with anyone: Evgeny Kissin. To hear him so mindful of how his harmonies and colourations must move beneath a leading voice that for once was not his proved in itself to be a constant source of intrigue, but to hear him shore up the Hvorostovsky baritone with the tumultuous piano writing of Medtner and Rachmaninov was thrilling indeed.

Hvorostovsky has one of the most effortless techniques in the business; his breath control is prodigious, second to none. At the heart of his Tchaikovsky set was the song "On Golden Cornfields", a bleak, forbidding lament whose tone utterly belies the spirit of the title. Emerging from Kissin's furtive rustlings Hvorostovsky curbed the vibrato and in the line "Trembling, resounds a gong" created an eternal resonance. Where the breath came from I have no idea, but it carried him downwards into basso tones that I don't think even he knew he had.

Then the switch into Italian with the lyric trifle "Pimpinella", where the very name demanded the lightest of inflections. "In the Midst of the Ball" brought more than a touch of his Onegin, big emotions mellifluously made light of; and in "Don Juan's Serenade" Kissin's frantic accompaniment, like a mad balalaika, intensified the urgency suggesting so many women and so little time.

The feverish impulses of Medtner's "To a Dreamer" had Kissin pushing Hvorostovsky to operatic extremes, a not especially big voice made bigger by the song's torrid imagery; "Prosperous Voyage" sailed towards the most shamelessly protracted of money notes; and, as one might have predicted, Rachmaninov's celebrated "Spring Waters" forged an exultant alliance, conclusively putting paid to the idea that big temperaments don't mix.