Since it seems like Dmitri Hvorostovsky has been one of the world's most popular baritones for at least ten years, how is it that his recital last Sunday night at Davies Symphony Hall suggested that not only is he better than he's ever been, but perhaps he hasn't even reached his prime?
Hvorostovsky, accompanied by pianist Ivari Ilja, began the program with four songs by Gabriel Faure: "Automne," "Sylvie," "Apres un reve" and "Fleur jetee." I'm not sold the French language is ever going to be a good fit for him. The words weren't enunciated very well, though his tone was gorgeous. It's new territory for him so kudos are due for branching out, but what followed was so superb the French stuff seemed a poor choice of material in hindsight.
The next part of the program featured five songs by Sergei Taneyev (b.1856- d.1915), a Russian composer not well-known outside of Russia. Hvorostovsky obviously has an affinity for this material. Wielding a beautifully burnished legato, the second song, "Menuet," was stunningly delivered. At the end of the song, as he sang lyrics which translate into "Reveal, reveal to me my fortune!""My lady, your end is at the guillotine," Hvorostovsky let his right hand drop to his side in a slicing motion. A nice bit theatricality perfectly delivered and looked like an unconscious move. Equally impressive was "Stalaktity," a slow, mournful song comparing "a frozen row of bitter tears" to stalactites. The final song of the Taneyev set was "B'jotsja serdce bespokojnoje," a faster paean to lust and love set in a natural landscape.
After intermission came two songs by Liszt from Tre Sonetti di Petrarca (Petrach Sonnets, of course). Again, Hvorostovsky raised the bar to incredible heights-  "l'vidi in terre angelici costume," was probably the most beautifully sung music from a male voice I may have ever heard. The second song was "Pace non trovo"- equally gorgeous as Hvorostovsky kept laying out these long legatos with ease.
The last set was comprised of romance songs by Tchaikovsky, a natural choice and obvious audience favorite (LOTS of Russians in the house for this, of course). With deep feeling and sensitivity, the songs conveyed the sadness of the composer's private life. Hvorostovsky actually made these look easy, though they certainly weren't without vocal challenges, by inhabiting the character of the songs. I thought to myself as I was listening to him that the recital format, which I'm ambivalent about, is a better forum for his talents than the opera stage. Then I thought that was kind of ridiculous.

Then came the first of three encores, "Credo in un Dio crudel" from Verdi's Otello. As good as the recital was up to this point, this blew me away. No one has yet had the pleasure of hearing him actually perform the part, but based on this, when he finally does it (he's said he wants to perform the role), it's going to take a legendary performance from the lead to not get totally eclipsed by Hvorostovsky's Iago. He delivered it with theatrical force, suddenly inhabiting the character. It was thrilling, despite the fact the music loses a lot of its power when performed on a solo piano.
I thought he should have stopped there, because there was no way he was going to top that. In my mind he didn't, though a beautifully sung acapella version of the folk song "Farewell, Happiness" certainly endeared even further into the audiences graces as did again the final encore, Rachmaninoff's "In the Silence of the Night" from Aleko.

He's never sounded better- catch the man in his prime as he tours this program around the country this month. The next stop is Carnegie Hall on Feb. 21st. Oh, and ladies, yes- he looked as good as he sounded- better than ever.

The concert was part of  San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers series, and deservedly so.