Seldom — if ever — has the Schubert Club presented a performer of serious intent and demeanor who also has been one of People magazine’s “50 most beautiful people.”
It was some years ago — 1991 — that the Siberian-born lyric baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was given that title. And yet, judging by his engaging performance at St. Paul’s Ordway Center Monday night, the final recital this season in the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series, one would have to say that Hvorostovsky has aged gracefully. At 51, he remains a handsome and charismatic presence onstage. With his flowing shoulder-length gray-blond hair, sequined collar and shirt open at the neck, revealing one or two gold medallions, Hvorostovsky looked like he belonged on the cover of a Harlequin romance novel or maybe subbing in Vegas for Wayne Newton.
And yet, beneath all that glitter breathes the soul of an artist, and if anything, Hvorostovsky’s vocal artistry has deepened over the years. He’s one of the few top stars of the opera world who is equally at home on the concert — or recital — stage. And he retains his trademarks — the sensuous timbre, the seamless legato and the superb breath control, qualities some may remember from his prior Schubert Club recital, in 1999. But he seemed this time, in what was a mostly Russian program, to be eager to probe ever more deeply the meanings and moods and colors of the songs he sang and to present each one as a dramatic scene. His emotional grasp of the material was absolutely secure.
In addition to which, it was an unusual and sophisticated program: songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Nicholas Medtner, a Russian who spent most of his adult years outside his native land. As well known as the first three are, their songs are seldom performed.
The Rachmaninoff set of five, with their serpentine melodies, including the familiar “Lilacs,” was one of the evening’s special rewards, as were the brilliant and touching songs by Medtner, a sadly forgotten composer whom Rachmaninoff championed and whose intricate piano parts were deftly played by Hvorostovsky’s sensitive accompanist — collaborator, really — Ivari Ilja.
Liszt was represented by two of the Three Songs of Petrarch, later re-fashioned by the composer into the better-known piano pieces of the same name. Hvorostovsky caressed their phrases with consummate delicacy and, as the evening wore on, made all these songs — so full of yearning and sadness — come alive and speak.
The audience Monday night — a sold-out crowd — was strange: applauding nervously at odd times during rather than at the end of sets and on occasion bursting into scattered applause before a song was over. At first, Hvorostovsky seemed shaken by these intrusions. Then, in the manner of a recreation director on a cruise ship, he began to acknowledge the ill-timed outbursts as if they were stunts.
The Schubert Club, it should be noted, provided especially clear and thoughtful notes and translations for the songs in the program book.
Michael Anthony writes about music.