Saturday 22 October 2011

Hvorostovsky/Ilja - Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, 21 October 2011

Barbican Hall

Fauré – Automne, op.18 no.3
Sylvie, op.6 no.3
Après un rêve, op.7 no.1
Fleur jetée, op.39 no.2
Taneyev – All are sleeping, op.17 no.10
Menuet, op.26 no.9
Not the wind, blowing from the heights, op.17 no.5
The winter road, op.32 no.4
Stalactites, op.26 no.6
The restless heart is beating, op.17 no.9
Liszt – Oh! quand je dors, S.282
Sonetti del Petrarca, S.270/1 and 3
Tchaikovsky – Six Romances, op.73

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Ivari Ilja (piano)

This was in some ways rather a strange ‘event’. It is not entirely unheard of for a singer to be the main attraction in a song recital, but I have never seen it illustrated to the extent that the singer was allotted his own ‘solo’ bow whilst his poor companion stayed offstage. That was clearly what Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s fans wanted, however, for they reserved their greatest applause for that moment – even more than when they ruined the conclusion of Liszt’s first Petrarch Sonnet by pre-emptively applauding so as to obliterate the final piano chords. An equal annoyance was the insistence upon applauding after every song, worst of all during the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances, op.73. But there was clearly no reflection from such listeners; they simply wanted to applaud and then to hear the next number. Hvorostovsky did not of course invite such behaviour directly; nor, however, did he entirely discourage it. Granting encores, he veered dangerously close to the manner of a cruise-line crooner. Moreover, his general bearing was often more that of a singer delivering a recital of arias rather than of song. His figure-hugging suit and matinée idol looks doubtless contributed to the hysteria: he certainly has an excellent line in smouldering, impassive stance .

Much of that is a great pity, for Hvorostovsky is a fine singer, who deserves to be heard as such. Admittedly, the opening Fauré group was odd. One can certainly respect Hvorostovsky's journey outside the comfort zone: this is someone who could undoubtedly satisfy, even inspire, audiences if he never strayed from Russian song. By the same token, however, one cannot ignore the weirdness of idiom. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very Russian-inflected, or rather Russian-accented, Fauré, not just in terms of pronunciation, though there were some very odd vowel sounds indeed, but also in terms of style and general tone. Pianist, Ivari Ilja to a certain extent followed suit. Indeed, I should not have been surprised to hear that the opening Automne had been written by Tchaikovsky. Sylvie was lighter, both in vocal and pianistic terms; Ilja handled Fauré’s modulations particularly well. Yet it was unclear that the words meant anything very much in performance, an impression underlined by Hvorostovsky’s broad grin at the end, when the words read – one could not necessarily hear them – ‘Tout pour mon cœur n’est que douleur!’ Après un rêve was more operatic than one might expect, but could take it (just about), and there was a splendid sense of anger to the closing Fleur jetée, though some words were again simply incomprehensible. The piano part was despatched in grandly Romantic fashion: impressive, if not quite what Fauré might have expected, even in this, somewhat atypical song.

The Taneyev group fared much better. Although Hvorostovsky really only came into his own in the second song, there was already  in the opening All are sleeping a marked improvement in terms of idiom. The Menuet benefited greatly from the classicising quality imparted to its opening by Ilja (not entirely unlike M. Triquet in Eugene Onegin). Both artists properly darkened their tone for the fourth and fifth stanzas, in which the mood of the ball is disrupted, and presented a fine portrayal of disintegration thereafter. This is really rather an interesting song – at least on a first hearing. Hvorostovsky’s gift for characterisation, even when of a stock nature, was on display recounting the timid gaze that shone with a tear. Not the wind, blowing from the heights proved a charming interlude prior to the cold urgency with which the striking song, The winter road, was brought to our attention. Though Hvorostovsky’s tone could sometimes harden, it really did not matter. Stalactites – I cannot imagine there are many vocal treatments of the theme – seared itself into the consciousness through the fine performance of the piano part, its downward freezing patterns highly evocative. (Were one to need reminding of the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, this would be a useful aide-mémoire.) Operatic urgency told in The restless heart is beating: the heart was clearly restless – and relentless – indeed. Taneyev emerged here as a considerably more interesting composer than his chamber music suggests.

That said, there was no doubting the rise in temperature occasioned after the interval by the arrival of Liszt. Hvorostovsky’s French sounded somewhat improved in Oh! quand je dors, but it was in the two Petrarch Sonnets that he truly shone. (What a pity we could not have heard all three!) His Italian was much better than his French, but more important still was the Romantically impassioned, at times almost Wagnerian, quality he imparted to delivery of words and music. There was the occasional coarseness to climaxes, notably in the first stanza of ‘Pace non trovo’, but the proof of the pudding lay in being reminded what magnificent songs these are. I really did not mind them being more or less transformed into arias, save for the aforementioned applause. Even the occasional slip concerning the words – something very odd happened in the final line of ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ was of relatively minor importance.

Finally came the enchanting set of Tchaikovsky romances. It was clear from the outset that both singer and pianist had command both of form and of that ineffable Tchaikovskian sadness, though it was unpardonable that the ending of ‘We sat together’ was compelled to compete with a mobile telephone for attention. ‘Night’ was especially impressive, the lugubrious piano introduction truly foreshadowing the intensifying words that followed; ‘The candle is flickering…/The gloomy darkness fermenting …/And my heart is being squeezed/so mysteriously by sorrow…’. ‘On this moonlit night’ was performed with grand sweep, almost as if in a single breath, whilst ‘The sun has set’ was genuinely moving, clearly heartfelt. The final ‘Again, as before, alone’ was darkly tragic, marked by a painful tread of regret that would not have been out of place in the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony.

There was a very odd claim, however, in Christopher Cook’s programme note that ‘Tchaikovsky’s ear was as much tin as Richard Strauss’s when it came to poetry!’ Having almost no Russian myself, I cannot comment when it comes to Tchaikovsky’s choice of verse, though surely his use of Pushkin was not entirely arbitrary. However, it seems to me a bizarre claim in the case of Strauss: it would be almost impossible to find a better-read composer. But then, Cook’s assessment of Liszt – ‘here is a composer who reminds us that you can change your national style as easily as exchanging a silk shirt for the Abbé’s soutane – was at least as misleading.