"He came, he sang, he conquered," The Times of London famously declared of Dmitri Hvorostovsky in 1989. Following his 1990 debut at Alice Tully Hall, The New York Times wrote that Hvorostovsky emitted "some of the most beautiful and eloquent sounds that can currently be heard from any human throat."
It has been nearly 20 years since Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a young baritone from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, stunned audiences — first in Russia and soon after around the world — with his luxurious voice, matchless breath control, and exquisite subtlety of interpretation. He was only 25 and already a soloist of the Krasnoyarsk Opera when he won the Glinka Competition, the most prestigious singing contest in Russia. Encouraged by Irina Arkhipova, the celebrated mezzo and doyenne of vocal art in Russia, he entered international competitions, first in Toulouse in 1988 and then the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989, winning both and launching a remarkable international career that developed with unprecedented speed.
Hvorostovsky was offered recitals around the world (including Lincoln Center — he returns to Avery Fisher Hall November 14), as well as an exclusive recording contract with Philips. His European operatic debut took place in 1991, and soon La Scala, Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera followed. Yet there were no appearances in either the Bolshoi's or Mariinsky's productions. It was a time when the Russian economy was in shambles and Russian art institutions were falling apart, unable to provide normal living and working conditions even for the best young talent.
Hvorostovsky, who calls creative freedom "the greatest treasure of the world," moved to London, closer to Western stages where he was in great demand. It seemed at the time that Russia had lost him. But he never lost Russia.
"Abroad, I always feel like an ambassador of my country and its music. I simply want the whole world to know our great music," he said in one of his interviews.
Though most baritone roles in Russian operas are either not suitable for his naturally lyrical voice or simply unavailable (not many Russian operas are staged in the West), Hvorostovsky frequently performs selections from Russian operas in concert, including such rarities as Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride and Rachmaninoff's Aleko. Tchaikovsky's Evgeny Onegin and Prince Yeletsky (of Queen of Spades) have become his signature roles and artistic triumphs, and it would be difficult to find a better Prince Bolkonsky (Prokofiev's War and Peace). From early on in his career, Hvorostovsky imparted his knowledge of Russian culture and history to Western directors striving for more authentic and profound interpretation of the Russian classics.
"His interpretation of the arias of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky are now trademarked with DH insignia," sums up conductor Constantine Orbelian, his collaborator in many performances and recording projects, including the upcoming concert at Avery Fisher Hall. "He has an ability to infuse an historic element in the arias of Prince Igor or Boris Godunov, at once forceful and brooding, or in his Onegin and Yeletsky, who are noble, passionate, and moving."
Hvorostovsky explored other genres of Russian vocal music during his formative performing years, including folk songs, romances, and sacred music. Who can forget his interpretations of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff's romances or Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death! His "Nochen'ka" ("Little Night"), an old lyrical folk tune sung a cappella, is his back-pocket encore and the very epitome of "Russian-ness," with its vastness, melancholy, and seemingly endless melodic line, rich with turns and nuances.
The long, searing melodies, lyricism, and brooding moods of Russian songs, chants, and arias had found their perfect match in Hvorostovky's dark voice, his unique legato and ability to sustain and enrich long phrases. When you add to this his devoted attention to the meaning of each word and confessional sincerity of expression, you get a perfectly Russian artist.
Not by chance, Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), considered by many as the most Russian of Russian composers, wrote one of his last and best compositions — Petersburg, a song cycle on the verses of the great Russian poet Alexander Blok — for Hvorostovsky, who performed it, as well as other Sviridov works, around the world.
A few years ago, the singer began to explore new territory: the popular songs of Soviet years. It came naturally to him, since the genre is rooted in the tradition of Russian romance and opera and is a treasury of melodic and emotional riches. No wonder that it was quite common for Russian opera stars of older generations to make such a crossover.
These songs hold personal meaning for Hvorostovsky, as they recall his childhood in Soviet Russia, his family and the strong musical influence of his father, an amateur baritone and pianist. These songs, heard on radio and television and often performed at home, were their shared experience.
Adding the Russian songs to his repertoire paralleled more frequent tours in Russia and brought Hvorostovsky enormous recognition there, including attendance by Vladimir Putin at a concert in Red Square.
"The mutual love of Dmitri and his Russian public is now legendary," says Orbelian. "Since 1994, he has carried the title of the People's Artist of Russia — and the title is not formal. He is the People's Artist."
The November 14 program at Avery Fisher Hall, which Hvorostovsky recently performed in Russia, France, and England, brings together all of the major Russian themes of his repertoire. Listening to 19th-century church and opera selections, the popular romances of pre-Revolutionary Russia and Soviet songs in Hvorostovsky's highly personal, authentic interpretation, audiences will have a rare opportunity to follow the evolution of this genre of Russian music and touch the soul of a nation.
Maya Pritsker writes frequently about the arts.