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Hvorostovsky Muscles into San Francisco

May 25, 2014

HvorostovskyResplendent in impeccably tailored designer tails, complete with sequined lapels, white-maned, buffed Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky proudly strode onto the stage of Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday evening. Appearing as part of San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performer Series, the 51-year-old artist smiled graciously through prolonged applause before demonstrating what too many years of singing heavy Verdian roles can do to an essentially lyric voice.

Marvelously accompanied by pianist Ivari Ilja, Hvorostovsky launched into a classically structured, all-Russian song program. The recital began with the oldest composer, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), and proceeded through Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) before the intermission paved the way for the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Shostakovich. Along the way, we heard from a range of 19th-century composers, and the audience. The audience especially, since many of its members whispered, took video and still shots, and clapped after every piece, ignoring Hvorostovsky’s obvious intent to maintain silence between the 11 Michelangelo songs.

From the very first song, Glinka’s “I remember the wonderful moment,” several aspects of Hvorostovsky’s vocal estate were glaringly apparent. While the genuine artistic impulses to soften tender passages and linger at key romantic moments were very much at play, the sound of the baritone’s enduringly strong and steady instrument has grown thick and monochromatic. The sweetness and gleaming shine of yore — the ability to wax tender and vulnerable as well as powerful — have given way to a dark, occasionally gruff and hectoring, sadly muffled delivery whose major calling card is brute strength.

Hvorostovsky can still sound magnificent when a song’s emotional content mirrors his current assets. A case in point was “Separation,” the fourth song from Shostakovich’s Michelangelo suite, in which his tone was ideal to express the sobs, tears, and torments of a departing lover. But in the song that preceded it, “Love,” the heart-touching tenderness of Ilja’s pianism said one thing, while the monotony of Hvorostovsky’s delivery said another.

The sweetness and gleaming shine of yore … have given way to a dark, occasionally gruff and hectoring, sadly muffled delivery whose major calling card is brute strength.

As the evening proceeded, it became clear that many in the audience were clapping more out of fandom than understanding. (But, to be fair, when it came to the Shosktakovich, comprehension was not abetted by the worst translation hodgepodge imaginable.) In Rachmaninov’s often-performed “Do not sing to me, fair maiden,” many people were so glad to hear Hvorostovsky finally soften (after his unsuccessful attempts to do so in the Glinka songs) that they began clapping before the final verse. Anything to relieve the monotony of song after song in which lovers, maidens, nightingales, heart’s desires, dreams, and suffering were all depicted in monochromatic shades of gray.

Consolation came from Ilja. Only a consummate pianist could possibly triumph over an instrument with a half-closed lid to deliver eloquent fortissimos without ever banging on the keyboard, then pull back to sweetly caress the keys. Bless him for supplying the tonal liquidity and ease that Hvorostovsky was unable to produce.

Operatic Villainy

As if to validate the thoughts running through my mind, Hvorostovsky gratified the audience’s prolonged applause with a single encore by the composer who may have done him in, Iago’s “Credo in un Dio crudel” (I believe in a cruel God), from Verdi’s Otello. Here, the lion unleashed everything he could possibly offer. Biting into his music as mighty cats rip into fresh kills, Hvorostovsky fully transformed into Otello’s despicable rival. It was such an amazing performance that it was hard to tell if the part had gotten the better of him, or if it had finally given him the opportunity to let loose everything he had kept bottled up during the evening.

It was nonetheless clear, as a wild-eyed Hvorostovsky strode off the stage like a madman who had just swept the battlefield clear of his enemies (or critics), that either he was having a very off night, or his best years are behind him. Only a shadow remained of the remarkable vocal beauty of his younger years, which you can revisit on YouTube or on recordings.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.