The concert encompassed a selection of Russian songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The pieces provided an interesting glimpse of different stages of the careers of the great composers, featuring songs written at vastly disparate points in their lives. The first selection from Rachmaninov proved especially interesting, composed when he was just nineteen; the Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, opened with a song from his penultimate opus, the Six Romances of op. 73. This measured and heartfelt piece, ‘Again, as before, I am alone’, set the emotional tone for the evening, with little variation to come; it was to be indelibly bleak, indelibly anguished, in a word, indelibly Russian.
It is, however, an oeuvre that Mr. Hvorostovsky knows well, and he attacked each new declaration of torment with flair and passion. ‘Again, as before, I am alone’ began slowly and tragically, its initial piano con dolore vocal line allowing Mr. Hvorostovsky room to showcase his smooth phrasing as he worked his way up to the emotional peak of a forte G sharp, sung with almost startling clarity. His voice is often less elegant in its upper register, and the passage came off harsher than the previous; nevertheless, it was powerfully dramatic, and as he returned lower for a softer finish, warmth once again saturated his notes. The work is suffused with a pained, lyrical melancholy, and Mr. Hvorostovsky expressed this beautifully.
He was accompanied on the piano by Ivari Ilja, who dexterously navigated the emotional turbulence of the music with tenderness and precision. The next selection, Pushkin’s ‘The nightingale,’ began with somber accompaniment, Mr. Hvorostovsky’s thickly burnished address to a nightingale taking off plaintively from the quieter tones of his pianist. As he eloquently bid the bird to ‘dig a grave for me, in a field, an open field, at the head plant scarlet flowers, at the feet lay on for me, a clear fast spring’, passion tore through his expression; as usual, his breath control was spectacular, and pain rang out in his words dramatically. This proved true of the yet darker ‘The heroic deed’, Mr. Hvorostovsky’s upper register sustained with commendable power.
As one began to feel perhaps slightly stifled by the unerringly bleak perspective of these first songs, the recital transitioned to Tchaikovsky’s setting of A.K. Tolstoy’s monologue about history’s famous philanderer, ‘Don Juan’s Serenade.’ The piece was too serious and too tempestuously crazed to offer much relief, but it did offer outlet for a more outwardly impassioned breed of singing, Mr. Hvorostovsky projecting ravishingly the intensity of the lover’s sentiment, ‘I shall give all—my song and my blood!’
This marked the end of the first set of Tchaikovsky songs, moving briskly into the tremendous lyricism of Rachmaninov’s early setting of Heine, ‘A dream’. The song dates from 1893, the same year that the elder Tchaikovsky was working on the piece with which the recital opened. Where the Tchaikovsky is ineffably restrained, passion soaking up from beneath a cool veneer, the Rachmaninov begins with a much more overt romantic lyricism, delicately expressed by Mr. Ilja. The hushed tenderness evoked by Mr. Hvorostovsky in its final lines complemented this flawlessly; though his voice isn’t always subtle, it can conjure great refinement when pressed. The first half closed with the elegiac ‘Oh no, I beg you, do not leave!’, pleadingly delivered with surprising softness and nuanced accompaniment by Mr. Ilja.
The return to the music of Tchaikovsky was ushered in with more of the same undercurrent of despair, if taken from slightly earlier in the composer’s life. Mr. Hvorostovsky’s smooth voice glided across such emotional turmoil seamlessly; this proved especially true in ‘A tear trembles’, in which the intensity of the narrator was superbly expressed by the confident timbre of his sound. The song concludes with almost an evocation of Wagner’s Tristan, the speaker consoling his beloved that ‘into one love we’ll all soon join—into one love, as wide as is the sea…which will not be contained by life’s shores.’ It is a beautiful sentiment, the piano gently wafting to silence after the final notes had been quietly sung. This led to ‘No, only the heart’, a lyrical piece that surely showed off Mr. Hvorostovsky’s vocal execution at its best.
The recital concluded with a selection of slightly later songs of Rachmaninov. An intelligent reading of ‘When yesterday we met’ was afforded, Mr. Hvorostovsky drifting silkily down to a pianissimo whisper as he repeated the lover’s parting cry of ‘Farewell, good-bye’; the contrast to his usual vocal heft was here, as elsewhere, striking. The final piece, ‘Christ is risen’, was richly coloured, if occasionally more of the stand and bellow variety of performance than anything bespeaking greater nuance.
Although one could not but admire Mr. Hvorostovsky’s compelling vocal precision and power as much as the warmth and beauty seemingly innate in his phrasing, one also could not help thinking that the evening’s selection did not entirely provide him an opportunity to showcase his talent to best effect. I found the songs, though lyrical, too unvaried; by the time the second half began with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Reconciliation’, featuring Scherbina’s exhortation not to ‘let hopes and false dreams disturb your peace…for you the past is irretrievable, and the future is without hope’, one had certainly gotten the idea. Moreover, for all the technical acumen of singer and accompanist, I found myself too often unmoved by the performance. Though Mr. Hvorostovsky is gifted with a powerful, velvety timbre through which he projects a great deal of feeling, and though he sustained an admirable level of anguish and emotion in these songs, after a while one got the feeling that he wasn’t fully engaged, that the surface emotion only ran so deep. The fault for this may partially lie with the songs themselves, which, while heartfelt and at their best conjuring passages of exquisite tenderness, often strike me as lacking the existential poignancy that can make the German lieder in particular so fundamentally resonant.
Even so, Mr. Hvorostovsky is a superb performer, and one got the feeling that he breathed life into the music as well as anyone could. Happily, if the evening’s listed selection itself was not always dynamic, the encores urged on by the impassioned applause of his audience provided a chance—if all too brief—for this to be remedied. A sprightly rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Serenade’ allowed Mr. Hvorostovsky the freedom to showcase his uncommon agility and dulcet prowess in a more buoyant, less heavy-handed way; at last, the evening truly soared.
John E.de Wald