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MUSIC REVIEW : The Somber Side of Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky

March 03, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Will the real Dmitri Hvorostovsky please start singing.

When the indecently gifted Siberian baritone first visited Southern California, back in 1989, he was a 26-year-old unknown among a flock of uneven Russian hopefuls chaperoned by the noted mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova. On that scraggly occasion, he sang a few arias and folk songs to a virtually empty Wilshire Ebell, but the one delirious critic on duty--this one--ventured that Hvorostovsky "could have the world at his feet."

Soon he began winning glamorous international contests, recording so-called classical as well as schmaltzy albums that hit the charts, and making debuts with major opera companies. Sometimes its nice to be able to say I told you so.

The conquering hero returned for a mostly effective recital in La Jolla during the 1990 season. He concentrated this time on esoteric art songs and popular arias.

Hollywood Bowl discovered his sonorous tones and matinee-idol persona last September when he joined John Mauceri and the loose-limbed weekend gang in the wide-open spaces for some explosive odes to Russian opera followed by assorted folksy ditties.

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That night, he even mustered two performances of "Dark Eyes," the gushing platitude that the hype machines are turning into his signature tune. The fans swooned.

Under the circumstances, one approached Hvorostovsky's debut recital at the Music Center on Tuesday with some trepidation. Would he dabble in slick show-biz indulgences, or would he show his serious side?

He showed his serious side. To a fault. He made no concessions, allowed no compromises.

Did I say serious? Make that somber. No, make that dour. Would you believe bleak? Dreary? How about gloomy?

His intentions no doubt were noble. He wanted to introduce some little-known music. He wanted to avoid cliches. He wanted, bless him, to take a few chances. He wanted to make his listeners think, not just bask in the shadowy, sensuous, wide-ranging lines he so easily produces.

In the end, however, Hvorostovsky gave us too much of a brooding thing. For all his good taste and soulful suavity, he courted monotony. Compounding the problem, his expressive utterances didn't seem to project very far into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Intimacy is a fragile commodity in a 3,200-seat hall.

For warm-up exercises, he began the relatively brief if demanding program with three Purcell songs, surprising his listeners with fluid English diction and reasonable agility, confounding them--for a while--by changing the order. Contrary to printed promises, "Music for a While" came last, not first.

The Shostakovich group that followed offered three striking samples of introspective Weltschmerz . In "Fragment" (1952), Hvorostovsky aptly invoked the bitterness of Pushkin. In two Spanish folk settings (1956), he cleverly fused the mock-Mediterranean flourishes with proper accents of Russian lamentation.

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The only bow to familiar repertory--and a modest bow at that--involved Ravel's "Don Quichotte a Dulcinee." Remembering, perhaps, that these melodies were originally intended for Feodor Chaliapin, Hvorostovsky added a few strokes of extrovert drama to the subtly inflected cantilena. His pitch may have sagged occasionally, but his French was suitably suave and neatly pointed.

After intermission came the test: A soulful cycle of 12 songs in the darkest Soviet-Realist tradition by Georgi Sviridov entitled "Otchalivshaya Rus' " (Russia Cast Adrift). It was written, we think, in 1956 when the Soviet-laureate composer was 41 (the Philharmonic program didn't deem it worthwhile to tell).

Using poetic texts by Sergei Essenin, the rather simplistic settings explore various socio-political shades of what the quaintly inadequate annotator labeled Slavophilia. Without transliterations (the sponsors provided translations but no original texts), it was difficult to follow the composer's rambling course of emotional appeals. As the scholar Colin L. O'Riordan observed of Sviridov, "his major achievement is in the thorough fusion of words and music in a manner directly appealing to Russian audiences, although his work is less convincing to listeners lacking the required linguistic and ideological background."

Under the circumstances, one could do little but sit back, relax, and admire the singer's obvious dedication. Also his dynamic flexibility and climactic fervor.

The large but non-capacity audience began to shrink with the final cadence. Hvorostovsky rewarded those who stayed to cheer with a pair of encores. He went for Baroque once more with an obscure aria of Antonio Caldara, and then sang--in one, long, poignant breath, it seemed--"O, Carlo, ascolta" from Verdi's "Don Carlo."

Mikhail Arkadiev was the ever-attentive, ever-supportive accompanist.

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