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Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, Tchaikovsky: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone), Ivari Ilja (piano), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 13.2.2011 (HS)


Some singers develop a passionate following for the sheer sound of their voice or the distinctiveness of their look. Luciano Pavarotti comes to mind, with his unmistakable voice and a large white handkerchief. It almost doesn’t matter whether there is much emphasis on interpretive depth or any venturing into unfamiliar repertoire. People pay to luxuriate in the sound.


The Davies Symphony Hall audience’s response to the first set of songs in a recital by the dashing, silver-haired Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovky Sunday night put us in that same territory. Excited applause after each song, which the singer acknowledged with a smile if not a bow, was one clue—despite a distinctly kludgy approach, and abysmal French pronunciation—leading to the heartache of four Fauré songs: Automne, Sylvie, Après un rêve and Fleur jetée.


Hvorostovsky certainly does not shy away from venturing outside his comfort zone, but despite some improvement in the sets of Taneyev and Liszt songs that followed it wasn’t until the final group of six Tchaikovsky Romances, and three stunningly powerful encores, that the baritone finally got seriously into the music. Until then, he seemed uninterested in wedding his considerable musical skills to the words. Instead he focused on showing off his impressive control of dynamics, his ability to extend phrases to breathtaking lengths, and the richness and roundness of his sound.


And what a sound! The full-throated passages easily filled the 3,000-seat auditorium with plangent rotundity, showing little strain at the top of the range and resonant power at the bottom. Quiet passages created moments of intimacy amidst the bravado, but mostly he seemed to be declaiming more than he was conversing. The poetry in the Fauré songs, especially, required something less overt.


He exhibited some of the same tendencies in two of Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets—“I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi” and “Pace non trovo.” But here, at least, the formality of the language, and perhaps his greater familiarity with the nuances of Italian, resulted in a more satisfying performance. It was big, it was operatic—but that fits for Liszt.


The Taneyev set, which closed the 30-minute first half, was notable for the dramatic nuance of the second song, “Menuet.” To classical dance’s lilt, flawlessly executed by the estimable Estonian pianist Ivara Ilja, Hvorostovsky painted a haunting picture of a young noblewoman ultimately facing her death by guillotine. It was the first time in the concert that he pulled back and let the words tell the story, rather than forcing the text and music into something they were not meant to be.


The scene painting in the rest of the Taneyev songs, not to mention his comfort with the Russian language, resulted in some satisfying music. Hvorostovky just seemed more attuned to the heart-on-sleeve Russian angst oozing out of each poem. The music, by a longtime friend of Tchaikovsky’s, lacks the master’s sense of completeness, of rightness, but this singer and pianist certainly squeezed plenty of juice out of it.


The Tchaikovsky set, the composer’s final work, was sheer perfection, especially the devastating final song, “Snova, kaki prezhde odin.” Employing amazing breath control and admirable vocal restraint, framed by delicate playing by Ilja, Hvorstovsky evoked the barely sublimated terror at the protagonist’s state of loneliness. It was also gorgeous music making.


For encores, the baritone, fresh from a run as Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera, went for the jugular with Verdi’s “Credo,” Iago’s soliloquy from Otello (despite a hint of unsteadiness on the final phrase). He followed that with an a cappella rendering of “Goodbye Happiness,” a traditional Russian song that had the large Russian contingent in the audience on the edge of their seats, and finished with Rachmaninov’s dramatic song, “In the Silence of Mysterious Night.”


Harvey Steiman


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