Hvorostovsky along with pianist Ivari Ilja, had been touring the United States with this and an alternate all Russian program. Though reviewers agreed that their programs were unvaryingly gloomy, the glamorous and sonorous Hvorostovksy received glowing reviews and attracted large audiences - particularly Russian speakers - wherever he appeared. Likely, he is the only classical vocalist who could have succeeded with such a dark, single language program. Hardly anything new can be added to the myriad descriptions of the dark velvety texture of Hvorostovky’s voice, or to the repeated raves about his breath control and legato singing. Yet perhaps he was a bit worried about introducing all that gloom to Southern California. As though his natural good looks, silver hair and easy smile might not be enough to carry Angelinos through two hours of minor keyed laments on lost loves, anger and death, the baritone appeared in an outfit on the Liberace side of stage wear: a form fitting tuxedo with long glitter-paved lapels. A flashing pendant and ring added to his sparkle.
He didn’t need it. His presence and voice were enough. Where a powerful baritone voice, such as Hvorostovsky possesses can be fully released in opera houses in roles such as Iago, in Otello or di Luna in Il Trovatore, song recitals are more intimate affairs. They require more varied gradations of sound and subtler techniques to communicate the meaning of every word, every musical phrase. Few opera singers have this gift. Hvorostovsky is able to move his audience’s emotions with the slightest gradations of sound, the most minimal motion of head, or hand. However, for this performance, most unusually for a recitalist, (and distractingly, for his audience), he kept an enlarged score on a music stand, to which he referred throughout the program.
The composers the Pushkin songs ranged from Glinka, a Pushkin’s contemporary to Sviridov, who was born in 1915 and lived until 1998. I have no idea of the quality of any of the Pushkin poems in Russian. One has to assume they were meaningful enough to inspire composers. However, many of the unattributed translations in the program were surprisingly lackluster and unpoetic and Hvorostovky’s interpretations for whatever reason, echoed this impression. The music of the earliest of these composition, particularly, seemed almost a warm up for the baritone. The more harmonically elaborate later songs by Nicolai Medtner and Sviridov were more compelling both for the singer and his audience. The Medtner songs too, offered the first of many opportunities for Ivari Ilja to display his virtuosity.
Shostakovitch came upon Michelangelo’s sonnets in 1974, shortly after they appeared in a Russian translation by Avram Efros. Many of these poems, written in the Italian artist’s late years, reflected the composer’s own regrets, angers and the despair he was suffering during the last years of his own troubled life. Shostakovich chose eleven sonnets, which he titled “Truth” “Morning”; “Love” “Separation” “Anger,” “Dante,” “To an Exile,” “Creativity,” “Night,” “Death” and “Immortality.” He scored them starkly for piano and bass voice, and once described the suite as consisting of “lyricism, and tragedy, and drama, and two ecstatic panegyrics in honor of Dante.” Although Shostakovich is said to have told composer Aram Katchaturian that he did not intend to orchestrate the work, he did so just before his death in August 1975, and never heard the orchestral version. Dark and depressing, even angry as these songs are, they grip the soul. The Chandler Hall audience was not asked to withhold its applause at any time during the program and rewarded each and every one of Hvorostovky’s Pushkin songs enthusiastically While the lyricism, intensity and devotion to text that Hvorostovsky brought to the Shostakovich-Michelangelo suite could not restrain the baritone’s devoted fans from responding to each song, the applause was pallid, brief and restrained as though they were torn between wanting to express their joys at hearing an adored artist, and awareness of the somber message he was delivering.
Hvorostovsky rewarded his adoring public with three encores, an impassioned Iago’s Credo, the lyrical Valente-TagliagerriPassione, and an a capella rendering of Goodbye Happiness, a Russian folk song. Each displayed a different aspect of Hvorostovsky’s artistry and stirred his audience to wild cheers, but did nothing to elevate the evening’s downbeat philosophical message.