Wigmore Hall, London
Think Russian singers, think low voices - all those mezzos and contraltos, baritones and basses, giving voice to the unfathomable Russian soul. If there's an element of stereotyping here, it's one in which Russian music often colludes.
On the evidence of Sergei Larin's Wigmore Hall debut last Monday, even Russian tenors are lower, darker than most. Larin's repertoire includes the Cavaradossis and Don Joses required of international tenors, and no doubt he's convincing in those roles. His voice, though, doesn't have that ineffable ping that marks out tenors in the usual Italianate style. That's not a fault, just a difference. Larin's voice is most thrilling lower down the range, erupting from the chest in almost baritonal garb.
Not that the upper reaches lack power. Larin controls the size of his delivery well, shaping the end of Cui's "A Statue at Tsarskoye Selo" so that the faintest exhalation of breath barely makes the air vibrate; but when he lets rip, the volume is immense, although carefully handled. In person, the voice is warmer than recordings might suggest, an attractive grainy vibrato supporting a broad tonal palette: a buzzing drone for Death's whispers in Mussorgsky, a lovely, light head voice on the final word, "amor", of Tchaikovsky's "Mezza notte".
Larin included Tchaikovsky in French and Italian, and Cui in French, and it was good to hear him in different languages. There is, though, something special about Russian sung by a Russian, and that was where Larin was most moving. While it might have been worth including non-Russian composers in his programme, Larin was understandably staking out his territory. He was accompanied by two Bekova sisters, cellist Alfia (in five Tchaikovsky songs) and pianist Eleonora (throughout). The Bekovas may not be natural accompanists, their individualism occasionally proving too assertive for the context: the hard, whining tone of Alfia's cello might usefully have been reined in; but Eleonora is a full-blooded player and her sense of drama gave Larin a cue he was happy to take.
He has strong physical presence, now hunched menacingly over his music- stand (there throughout the performance), now grabbing a nuance from the air in his storyteller's hands. The effect is engrossing, even when Larin teeters towards exaggeration: at the end of Mussorgsky's "Trepak" from Songs and Dances of Death, the applause broke out early, but he went ahead with his planned gesture, resting hand on head in despair. At that point, the effect was histrionic, but for the most part the body language was convincing, arising out of the music the way stage action should.
Mussorgsky provided a fitting climax to the evening, the tenor voice allowing just a chink more light into the music than do the basses and baritones we usually hear in the cycle. Larin is not afraid of grotesquerie, nicely capturing Death's devilish pleasure as the raptor finally gets his prey in "Serenade"; some might find it over-emphatic, but Larin shares his pleasure in the act of performance. A performer in the best sense.
Larin's new CD, `Russian Arias Vol 1', conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, is on Chandos.