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Seen and Heard International Concert Review



Russian songs and arias: Dmitiri Hvorostovsky (baritone), Philharmonia of Russia, Constantine Obellian (conductor); Style of Five; Pacific Boychoir, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 22.1.2006 (HS)



When the dashing Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky announced that he would devote an entire half of his San Francisco recital with orchestra to songs of the Great Patriotic War (the Russians' moniker for what the rest of us call World War II), I must admit to some serious qualms. Yes, he had recently done a CD of these pieces, but the output of what I pictured as hack Soviet composers seemed so repellent that I never even listened to the CD. So it was a surprise to me that the string of songs that occupied the second half of this concert emerged as something more than pleasant, exuding plenty of charm, even if the music was something less than gripping.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the voice in question is Hvorostovsky's, one of the most beautiful before the public today. He seems to have infinite control over the timbre, from a velvety croon to a full roar that can pin one's ears back, unerring intonation and breath control that allows him to hold a final note and let it kaleidoscope through six or seven different colors and intensities. That old line about great singers, that it would be worth hearing them sing the telephone book, applies here, except that Hvorostovsky uses all that vocal dexterity to deliver the emotional content of this music with often stunning impact.

And, of course, here he is singing Russian music to an audience packed with members of San Francisco's Russian community (of which conductor Constantine Obelian is a product, having been born here to parents of Russian and Armenian descent). The connections were palpable.

The words of the war songs, as with most overtly patriotic songs anywhere, descend often to the banal. The music has trace elements of Russian folk music and American jazz, but it is infused with the same Russian melancholy and gritty spirit of more familiar songs by Moussorgsky or Rachmaninov of an earlier era, i.e., pre-Soviet. I was especially taken with the soft tread that underlined "On a Nameless Hill," like a distant echo of a fierce battle weaving through a mournful lament, and the bittersweet romance of "Unexpected Waltz."

These songs were written for popular broadcast at home and performance for the troops, but they have more classical structure than Cole Porter's "Something for the Boys" or Helen O'Connell singing "When My Baby's Comin' Home," which were among America's musical output of the same era. The orchestrations, uncredited in the program, utilize a quintet of Russian-instrument specialists and the full palette of the chamber orchestra-size Philharmonia to often charming effect. Amplified with a microphone, Hvorostovsky's voice still retains much of its natural sheen, and it seems appropriate for this music.

There were no mikes in the first half of the program, a mix of unfamiliar arias and mostly familiar orchestral pieces from 19th-century Russian operas. Hvorostovsky found a winning balance that kept this music from going over the top, as it easily can, suggesting the emotional content rather than wearing it on his impeccably tailored sleeves. In the most familiar piece, Borodin's soliloquy for Prince Igor, he let the voice express the tortured feelings in a well-circumscribed range of sound.

Orchestral interludes included Rimsky's the "Procession of the Nobles" from Mlada, Mussorgsky's Prelude to Kovanschina and two Tchaikovsky excerpts, the "Polonaise" from Eugene Onegin and the rollicking "Dance of the Skomorokhi" from The Snow Maiden. Obelian and the orchestra dispatched these with great verve but little subtlety.

The less familiar solo works tended to be as contemplative as the Prince Igor aria, including Aleko's aria from Rachmaninov's opera of that name, and two rather tender items from Anton Rubinstein's The Demon. Finally, the baritone had a chance to bust loose on "Vindex's Epthalamium," a stirring ode to the god of marriage from Rubinstein's Nero.

The Russians (and others) in the audience must have felt a great sense of release when Hvorostovsky busted loose with three unbuttoned encores of familiar Russian tunes: "Katusha," "Moscow Nights" and "Orchechonye," the latter as far over-the-top as the first half was controlled.



Harvey Steiman




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)