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Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Slavic Soul Recital

Review of the February 13, 2011 performance

By Cheryl North

A bit of a shock wave seems to course through a hall at the onset of any recital by Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. First, there's his very appearance - his confident, masculine stride on stage accompanied by a delighted grin as he acknowledges the inevitably enthusiastic applause. Then, there's the rapt silence evoked by the initial sound of his distinctive voice as it cuts a clean swath through the hall - warm and embracing, but propelled by its piercing focus and colored by a hint of duskiness. Then, add the breadth and depth of his musicianship to the mix, and you have the recipe for an unforgettable concert experience.

So it was last Sunday eve at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. It also helped mightily that Hvorostovsky had one of the premiere pianists in the business as his musical collaborator - Ivari Ilja from Estonia.

The charismatic baritone opened his concert with four of Gabriel Fauré's lovely evanescent song gems - Automne, Sylvie, Apres un reve, and Fleur jetee. While Hvorostovsky seemed somewhat unaccustomed to the French songs, he launched into his next set, five songs by the late 19th century Russian composer, Sergei Taneyev with an exciting fervor. Taneyev's amalgam of vocal, pianistic, and poetic elements evoked vivid "tonal paintings" of sleigh bells, a sparkling ballroom scene from the pages of a Tolstoy novel, and even, quite incredibly, stalactites formed from frozen tears. Heady stuff, gorgeously delivered by Hvorostovsky and Ilja.

A unequivocal highlight of the evening was the baritone's consuming mastery of two selections from Franz Liszt's Tre Sonetti di Petrarca -- l'vidi in terre angelici costume, and Pace non trovo. One could easily feel that Liszt might have written them specifically for Hvorostovsky. Both musically and poetically, the pieces embodied the extravagant spirit of high 19th century Romanticism. Consider the lines "I find no peace, but for war am not inclined; I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice; I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world." Then add the timbre of Hvorostovsky's voice empowered by his Olympian breath control and you have a tour-de-force.

The program closed with six Romances, true fusions of heart and soul of Peter Tchaikovsky. All save two of these were exquisitely colored by reminiscences of times and landscapes in which the poet's love had once bloomed, but which were now lost to all but memory. In signature Tchaikovsky style, the music embodied a lyricism that melded with the words so as to resurrect them within the listener's own emotions.

Might this have something to do with what is commonly referred to as "Slavic Soul?"

Quite predictably, audience emotions were rallied to a point where Hvorostovsky and Ilja were compelled to provide a couple of particularly impassioned, bravura encores. The first was an all-out stunner: a powerful interpretation of Iago's chilling Credo in un Dio crudel from Verdi's Otello. Hvorostovsky brilliantly tailored his own powerful dramatic instincts and vast palette of vocal color to create a definitive portrait of Iago's malevolent cunning.

His second encore was an unaccompanied primeval-sounding lament, Farewell, Happiness, which, of course, was in Russian. A Hvorostovsky favorite with which to end a concert, the piece usually stills an audiences to silence and closes the concert.

But not this time. The audience's standing ovation summoned the performers back for a final, glorious, culminating masterpiece: Sergei Rachmaninoff's rapturous, In the Silence of the Night.

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