There was no false modesty from the stage on Thursday night in Jordan Hall, and no illusion that the crowd was there for the rarely considered art songs of Nikolai Medtner.
They were there for the acclaimed baritone Dmitri
Hvorostovsky. And while he embraced the characterizations and powerful emotions distilled in the selections on this all-Russian Celebrity Series recital program, Hvorostovsky mostly chose to play the role of himself, Siberian opera superstar, wearing a jacket with glittering lapels, flashing high-wattage smiles, and tossing his mane of shoulder-length silver hair. Also adding a certain casual quality to the proceedings, he brought music on stage with him, placed it on a stand off to the side and swiftly flipped pages at the end of each song. “My voice is a perfect instrument,” he recently told the Huffington Post. So come, this recital seemed to say, let’s just enjoy it for a while.
There is, of course, little that is casual about Hvorostovsky’s singing itself. His voice is supremely rich and generous in scale, and its qualities evenly distributed across his entire range. There is also an electricity pulsing behind its warmth. In the anguished apostrophe that opens Tchaikovsky’s “Nightingale,” with a text by Pushkin, his tone sounded at once cultivated and primal. And Tchaikovsky’s “Frenzied Nights” became a carefully paced and ultimately visceral disclosure of nocturnal torment.
There were also moments when one wished for a more palpable grappling with the shifting expressive valences of the texts themselves, as in the grouping of songs by Medtner, a contemporary of Rachmaninoff. Hvorostovsky conveyed the quality of vulnerability in particular less persuasively than other aspects of these songs’ emotional worlds.
The concluding set of
Rachmaninoff selections brought some of the evening’s most memorable singing, including the wistful Silver-Age lyricism of “She Is as Beautiful as Noon,” with a text by Nikolai Minsky in which the speaker’s love is compared to that of the raging sea for the silent shore. Hvorostovsky here unfurled long burnished phrases over the piano’s steady, glowing pulse. “Once Again, I Am Alone” crested with a kind of volcanic intensity. And the early “Do not Sing, My Beauty, to Me” (Op. 4, No. 4) reminded you that Rachmaninoff had a way with homesickness and nostalgia long before his life and career were riven by exile.
Nothing on the evening’s program, however, felt quite as free and fully inhabited as Hvorostovsky’s first encore, Iago’s Credo from Verdi’s “Otello,” a glimpse of the opera star on home turf. He ended with a Neapolitan song, “Passione,” by Ernesto Tagliaferri. Artful accompaniment here and throughout the night came from pianist Ivari Ilja.