The first time he sang in Symphony Hall, nearly twenty years ago, Dmitri Hvorostovsky was in costume in the role of Prince Yeletsky, in a staged performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa’s direction. Two years earlier he had won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in Wales, and the reputation acquired there to some degree preceded him to Boston. But no one was quite prepared for the effect he had on the audience.
His most important aria, Ya vas lyublyu (“I love you”) takes place early in Act II, in which the Prince begins with a rather formal declaration of his love for Lisa. It is an aria of long phrases, sustained legato lines, beginning quietly and building to an impassioned plea that she recognize the depth of his love. The aria could not have been a better fit to Hvorostovky’s voice if Tchaikovsky had written it specifically for him. After its final line — on one of those long-sustained notes giving the impression that the singer has endless reserves of breath — the four-minute aria was followed by what seemed five minutes of rapturous applause and cheers, during which time, of course, the singers remained frozen in their tracks, waiting for the opportunity to continue.
From that moment Hvorostovsky was something of a Boston favorite, and the large audience that showed up at Symphony Hall for his recital put on by the Celebrity Series on Sunday afternoon, February 27, showed that, if anything, his popularity has grown. This time it was a song recital, half in Russian (Taneyev and Tchaikovsky), the rest in French (Fauré) and Italian (Liszt), superbly accompanied by Ivari Ilja, Hvorostovsky’s regular recital partner for the last eight years, whose playing was particularly exquisite in the Liszt songs, which make greatly varied demands on the pianist from one moment to the next.
Whether because he expected to be singing in large halls on his current tour or simply because he was (naturally) selecting songs for his capacious voice, Hvorostovsky’s repertory largely consisted of songs by each of the four composers that called for the kind of sustained legato for which he is famous. And singing in a space as large as Symphony Hall naturally encourages vocal projection to the back wall, which tends to make these songs resemble opera arias rather than the more intimate sort of interplay between music and poetry that can make a song recital a very special, intimate communicative experience. That said, despite Hvorostovsky’s tendency to sing more or less full voice at every opportunity, sometimes almost overwhelming the climax of a song, there were also some exquisite pianos that extended the expressive range in Fauré’s Après un rêve, the Liszt Petrarch songs, Taneyev’s Minuet, and Tchaikovsky’s Opus 73 set of six romances (performed complete), especially at the close of No. 6 (Snova, kak prezhde, odin – “Once again, as before, I am alone”).
Following the formal program, the baritone gave his opera fans the benefit of his rich voice in its fullest expressive and dramatic range, with Iago’s evil credo from Otello, and followed that with Rachmaninoff’s “In the silence of the secret night” (Op. 4 No. 3), another song with a quasi-operatic climax designed to thrill the listener with sheer vocal power.
It was clear from the enthusiastic response that Hvorostovsky gave his audience what it wanted, and for sheer vocal sonority and spectacular breath control, it would be hard to disagree. But I would very much like to hear him sometime in a smaller hall and in a repertory that includes songs of a greater range of expression: something light and charming, something truly intimate, something calling for faster expression of the text, whether comic or dramatic — in short songs that offer him more opportunity to express personae different than the one that seems to come most naturally to him. Still, it would be churlish to suggest that what was on offer was not very attractive and welcome, particularly the Liszt Petrarch songs and Tchaikovsky set. I just look for more variety on Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s next appearance here.