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Hvorostovsky’s Russian song recital fails to convince

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Last night in the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave a recital of songs by Russian composers. His accompanist was pianist Ivari Ilja. The first half of the program provided a survey of settings of poems by Alexander Pushkin by nine composers covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second half consisted entirely of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 145 suite of settings of eleven poems by Michelangelo, in Russian translations by Avram Efros, composed in 1974.

I have speculated that Opus 145 may have been a result of the friendship that Shostakovich had formed with Benjamin Britten. Britten had set seven of Michelangelo’s sonnets (Opus 22) during the Second World War in 1940 when both he and tenor Peter Pears were living in the United States. Thus, when Shostakovich encountered Efros’ collection of translation, he may well have thought of Britten. However, while Britten’s Opus 22 is, in many respects, a work of youthful enthusiasm (not to mention passion), Shostakovich was in failing health in 1974; and, in most respects, his selections are far more sobering than the sonnets Britten had chosen.

That sense of sobriety is reinforced by a particularly spare use of thematic resources. One could imagine that Shostakovich was so taken with the words that he wanted his music to support without dominating them. He also tended, as Britten had done, to approach the poems at their semantic level, transcending the textual constraints of rhythm and sophisticated line groupings and rhyme schemes. Thus, while the reader can admire how much Michelangelo could achieve within highly rigid formal constraints (and, on the basis of the transliterations in last night’s program book, it would appear that Efros took a highly skilled approach to honoring those constraints), Shostakovich’s capacity for expressiveness emerges through an orthogonal dimension.

Sadly, Hvorostovsky’s performance last night showed little regard for any dimension of expressiveness, whether in Shostakovich’s music or in the text sources of Efros’ translation of Michelangelo’s original. To some extent Ilja’s account of the piano part (very much its own distinctive voice, rather than mere accompaniment) showed some awareness of the changes in topic, as the suite progressed from one poem to another. This was some of Shostakovich’s last writing for piano, and he endowed this music with an intense character that can easily be taken for funereal. Had Hvorostovsky picked up on even a modest fraction of what Ilja had put into his interpretation, this would have been an engaging, if not compelling, performance. Instead, it bordered on a featureless vocal delivery that revealed little familiarity with what the words were actually doing, regardless of the language in which they were uttered.

When it comes to formal constraints on text, Pushkin has a reputation for being such a sophisticated wordsmith that many view the translation of his texts as a futile task. This poses a significant problem for those listening to song settings of those texts with little, if any, knowledge of Russian. Having been in that position in the past, I have come to appreciate the extent to which music can sustain such a setting through its own expression of that semantic dimension.

What was interesting about the Pushkin selections that Hvorostovsky made for his recital was how many different paths could proceed along that dimension. Thus, when one listens to how Mikhail Glinka set Pushkin, it is hard not to think of how Franz Schubert set Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, even if the poets worked from decidedly different structural foundations. As the composers Hvorostovsky selected proceeded in roughly chronological order, one encountered similar reflections on Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, as well as a certain kindred spirit shared by Nicolai Medtner and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Sadly, these were again insights that owed more to Ilja’s piano work than to Hvorostovsky’s vocal technique. If literary theorists admire the extent to which Pushkin could endow every word with its own signification, Hvorostovsky never seemed to treat any of them as anything more than pegs upon which he could hang his notes; and, indeed, his notes did little more than just hang there. Every now and then a bit of dramatism would emerge through his body language, but that was a relief given how little seemed to be expressed through his voice. Having had past encounters with vocalists capable of endowing Pushkin’s words with meaning, even for listeners who do not really grasp the words themselves, Hvorostovsky’s account felt woefully inadequate.

Ironically, things did not improve when he shifted to Italian for his encore. In this case the words were by Arrigo Boito; and Hvorostovsky chose to sing Iago’s “Credo in un Dio crudel” (I believe in a cruel God) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. This allowed for a bit more expenditure of energy from Hvorostovsky, but that made for only a marginal increase in his expressiveness. Indeed, he seemed to put more attention into the blood-curdling scornful laugh at the end of the aria than he had devoted to any of Verdi’s phrases. This was not a good night for those who take their vocal recitals seriously.