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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Concert Review: The White Tiger Returns

Dmitri Hvorostovsky in recital at Carnegie Hall. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen

He'll take Manhattan: Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Photo by Pavel Antonov for
On Wednesday night, Dmitri Hvorostovsky returned to Carnegie Hall for a program of Russian songs and lieder by Richard Strauss. On paper, this would seem a normal yearly recital, part of the yearly routine of an international opera star. What is unusual though is that Mr. Hvorostovsky (who last appeared at the Met in Il Trovatore last fall. is in the middle of a long battle against brain cancer. His diagnosis was announced in June of 2015. Since then, he has cancelled performances,  undergone hospitalization and suffered through prolonged, presumably painful treatment.

A warm wave of applause greeted the singer as he strode out onto the stage, from a house that featured a range of famous opera singers (from Marilyn Horne to Renée Fleming) on hand in the box seats to give their support. Mr. Hvorostovsky looked thinner than in years past. The famous mane of silver hair worn long in the back to hide where surgeons last year drilled into the base of his skull. And although he used sheet music and leaned occasionally on the Steinway piano, he seemed very much his old self.

Most importantly, the smooth, rich baritone was in fighting shape, with its upper register intact in key dramatic moments. It was first heard in a set of five songs by Mikhail Glinka, the composer who wrote what are arguably the earliest operas of any lasting importance in Russian history. Glinka's songs are settings of Russian texts but also have an Italian influence, with bel canto ornamentation and virtuoso passages that Mr. Hvorostovsky navigated with liquid ease. Songs like "Say not that it grieves the heart" and "Doubt" engrossed the listener in a well of emotion, while "Bolero" had distinct rhythmic snap and a vitality that the singer brought to the surface.

As Russian song evolved, the most popular form became the romance. These were not items for the concert hall but for the salon, sung for the entertainment of the noble class at musical soirées. Mr. Hvorostovsky's next offering was a bouquet of these hot-house works by Rimsky-Korsakov, dating from different periods in that composer's long career. Early works like "On the hills of Georgia" and "The Lark Sings Louder" burst with youthful energy while "The wave breaks into spray" drove forward with a rhythmic accompaniment provided by pianist Ivari Ilja.

After intermission, Mr. Hvorostovsky sang a set of songs by Tchaikovsky, showing that composer's astonishing talent as a songsmith. "I bless you, forests" found Tchaikovsky in a religious subject, drawing from a poem about John the Baptist, while "The Nightingale" turned nature imagery into a naïve paean to a distant beloved. Frustrated love was also the subject of "Amid the din of the ball," its distinctive triple rhythm providing lapping waves upon which Mr. Hvorostovsky's voice sailed forth. The little set closed with the passionate "The First Meeting," with text by a Tchaikovsky patron and emotional resonance provided by the singer.

Although he primarily sings in Russian and Italian repertory, Mr. Hvorostovsky switched gears by offering a set of German lieder by Richard Strauss. He dove cleanly into these complicated songs, with their long melodic lines and climactic notes offering a fresh set of challenges to his instrument. "Allerseelen" and "Befreit" had a hypnotic quality, drawing the listener into their complex narrative and the hidden narrative in the piano part played by Mr. Ilja. The audience was rapt in "Zueignung" and the rising chords of "Morgen." the five-song set ended on a joyous note with "Cäcille", the song written by Strauss on his wedding night and an emotional high point in his catalogue.

After this, tumult. Audience members stood and applauded, with the ordinary punters clapping as loud as the cadre of famous singers in the balcony. Women ran down the parquet aisle and handed Mr. Hvorostovsky three bouquets which he bent down to accept with grace. Moved by the reception, he offered two encores: "Passione", a Neopolitan canzone made famous by tenors like Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti, and "The Sweet Night," a Russian folk song that Mr. Hvorostovsky sang without accompaniment. 

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