Following more treatments abroad, Hvorostovsky carved out for himself a carefully circumscribed medium-weight program at his Carnegie Hall recital on Wednesday with pianist Ivari Ilja. It was well within his vocal reach and prompted mostly medium-voltage performances. The packed house — that included Renee Fleming, as well as what appeared to be a family cheering section drawing Hvorostovsky's affectionate eye contact — often cheered before the Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Strauss songs were fully over.
The concert was also on the short side. The printed portion of the program was over in 90 minutes. But the message emerging from the recital was that Hvorostovsky remains a formidable presence, both vocally and physically. This is important news in a world where singers fear that the treatments necessary to save their lives may have deleterious side effects to their voices.
Hvorostovsky's vocal state wasn't that of someone who had been through a illness but of a singer adjusting to his mid-50s prime in his 27th year of international fame. High notes weren't as richly colored as before. His tone quality wasn't always as well supported as in the past. (This was also apparent in his recent broadcast of Eugene Onegin from London's Royal Opera). Some of the recital's music seemed to have been dusted off rather recently, considering how frequently he consulted a discreetly placed music stand.
But whenever he would sneak an extra breath near the climactic close of a song, something special was on the way. For all of his exterior glamour, Hvorostovsky is a highly technical singer, and those elongated moments that create his trademark rhetorical emphasis — starting with Rimsky-Korsakov's "The wave breaks into spray" — are the result of smart vocal planning rather than impulsive inspiration.
A set of five Glinka songs — similar to those by Schubert and Schumann but in Russian — were the standard throat-clearing opening, in performances that were a bit perfunctory. From there, a pattern emerged: The more interesting elements Hvorostovsky had in any given song, the more engaged his performance. Some of the six Rimsky-Korsakov songs, for example, eschew a standard verse form in favor of a continuously unfolding musical entity to which Hvorostovsky heartily responded.
The Tchaikovsky set was the best of the evening and was the one where he consulted his music stand the least. One highlight from the set was "The Nightingale" with its sophisticated piano writing, which evokes the bird's call in ways that chart the emotional evolution of the song. "Amid the din of the ball" had Hvorostovsky establishing an aristocratic veneer that set the tone for the song's juxtaposition of exterior poise and interior longing. "The first meeting" closed the Tchaikovsky set with his impressive breath control.
As great as it was to hear Hvorostovsky singing favorite Strauss songs such as "Morgen" and "Zueignung," the music didn't seem fully worked into his voice. His mix of vocal registers wasn't as seamless as usual But every aspect of his art came together beautifully in his frequently-employed encore, the unaccompanied folk song "Nochen'ka" that ended with a twist: Hvorostovsky moved toward the audience with a broad smile that suggested happiness was indeed ahead. It's always fun to glimpse his more unbuttoned side. At one point when a cell phone rang between songs, he craned his neck as if to ask, "Is it for me?"