It is 25 years since the unforgettable night when Dmitri Hvorostovsky won the 1989 final of Cardiff Singer of the World, beating Bryn Terfel, who came away with the Lieder prize. That battle of the giants launched two careers at the highest level, though the singers have never been rivals since, as each has pursued his own individual path.
Now just into his 50s, Hvorostovsky is at the peak of his game. With his long, flowing, white locks, glittering jewellery and tight-fit suit, he certainly looked the part as the most charismatic Russian singer of his generation at this song recital, an enthusiasm that complements his main career singing Verdi and Russian roles in the opera house.
Hvorostovsky’s recitals are not nearly as predictable as one might expect. This programme combined a whistle-stop tour through the history of Russian song, featuring settings of Pushkin from Glinka to Rachmaninov, with a performance of Sviridov’s song cycle Petersburg – a Vocal Poem. Although this may seem to be playing safely to the singer’s strengths, quite a few of the songs were rarities and there is nobody else of Hvorostovsky’s stature singing this repertoire today.
Comparing him with the great Russian song recitalists of the past, Hvorostovsky is less imposingly authoritative than the mezzo Irina Arkhipova, less blazing than the scaldingly memorable soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. But his dark, brooding baritone and the amplitude of his singing suit the world of Russian song very well: Borodin’s “For the Shores of your Far Homeland” was sung in long-breathed, far-reaching phrases, and a group of three songs by Medtner matched some grandly romantic singing with effortlessly virtuoso playing from Ivari Ilja, Hvorostovsky’s regular accompanist.
The Sviridov song cycle was written for Hvorostovsky in 1995 and is not new to the UK. It remains, though, an impressive work to hear live and Hvorostovsky gave it everything he has, filling the Barbican’s wide expanse with sound and making the bleak intensity of the songs as gripping as if they were written by Shostakovich. There were no encores, but it would be unreasonable to complain. Hvorostovsky gave us as much big singing here as in two nights at the opera.