REMEMBERING DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY (1962-2017) The great Siberian baritone, who has died at the age of 55, leaves behind a golden legacy
A certain online scandalmonger and coffin-chaser likes to preface news of deaths in the musical world with "sadness" or "tragedy", usually when neither he nor we have heard of the person in question. But the end of Dmitri Hvorostovsky's two-and-a-half-year struggle with brain cancer really does make opera-lovers very sad indeed – not just because he was only 55, but also because one of the world's most beautiful lyric baritone voices still had much more to give. As with most great artists, though, he has left us a legacy on film and CD which guarantees him a certain immortality.
Soul and sound were there right from the start, when only a singer of this calibre could possibly have deprived Bryn Terfel of the title of 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World (Terfel was awarded the Song Prize, and both sustained equally world-class careers thereafter). This film from the competition shows us what made folk melt about Hvorostovsky's delivery and tone in an aria which no-one has ever sung better – Prince Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades.
The breath control and the phrasing, like the best of cellists bowing in long lines, remained hallmarks. But when I interviewed Hvorostovsky for Gramophone in 1992, he was well aware that beauty of tone wasn't the only thing to sustain a career: "There's a wonderful story by Turgenev called Singers, about a competition between two voices. The first performer comes and sings, and everyone's terribly excited, because it's a wonderful, rich voice, and he has a huge success. Then the second comes, and he sings so quietly that at times the orchestra can hardly hear him. But he creates a huge, nostalgic, melancholic, very sad effect: everyone in the audience is in tears because they remember some sad event in their lives. That's a lesson to be learned, because some of the songs don't need a huge voice – you have only to talk from your soul, from your heart."
He was also keen to give western audiences a "better impression" of a song like "Dark Eyes" ("Ochi chorniye") than Pavarotti had done in the Three Tenors concert: "Actually I was so surprised at the totally clear way in which Pavarotti enunciated the first two words, but still it was done in such a fashion as to ignore the very deep feelings which lie underneath. I find this song exacting because of the close relation of the words and the music. It's a simple idea, a song about lost first love, but in performance it can be incredibly rich." Hvorostovsky performs "Dark Eyes" below in 2002.
The CD he was talking about, Dark Eyes - Russian Folksongs with the phenomenal Ossipov Russian Folk [Balalaika] Orchestra, remains a classic of its kind, and the intimate numbers – especially two that are unaccompanied – bear out what he told me. Growing up in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk, he spent the most time with his grandmother, who "knew thousands of folksongs... she sang while she was working in the kitchen, and I jumped around to those songs. So although I heard the 'official' folksong style screamed at me all the time from radio and television, I really learned from my grandmother, because she sang the music in the right way."
Hvorostovsky's unaccompanied delivery of the folksong 'Nochenka'
There were criticisms that the voice was not a huge one, that it didn't always carry in large opera houses, least of all in the bigger Verdi roles, and that the tone colour could be unvaried. But the cantabile was always peerless, and under the right director – as, for instance, with Robert Carsen in the Metropolitan Opera's Eugene Onegin – Hvorostovsky could be a fine and nuanced singing actor (when I reviewed his last Royal Opera Onegin, I didn't realise he was already ill, and courageously going on with the show). His performances, both live and on CD, of Russian romantsy or romantic songs, from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to Shostakovich and Sviridov, are also peerless. Later ventures into bizarre Russian pop, the posh'lust or vulgarity of Putin-era bling, will fade into insignificance; the artistry of one of opera's great singers from any era remains.