Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

Hvorostovsky, Radvanovsky and Verdi, at the Kennedy Center

At least twice last night, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky drew a finger across his brow after singing, as if to wipe off a little bit of sweat, as if to remind the public that the great stream of dark, smooth sounds he has been making for more than twenty years takes real work. I first heard Hvorostovsky the year after he won the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. He appeared at Alice Tully Hall–a famous recital, a genuine New York event–and wowed a rapt crowd of critics, managers, publicists, envious opera stars and the rest of us, lucky to get in to an unforgettable performance.  Few singers have given me more pleasure, and while Hvorostovsky is now in his late 40s, he still has all the old power if not 100 percent of the old effortlessness.

Hvorostovsky appeared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, in a program of arias and duets, mostly by Verdi, but with a show-stopping finale from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” thrown in. It was good fun, an evening of unhinged singing that revealed Radvanovsky in a new light. She has a major Verdi voice, from top to bottom, and she isn’t afraid to use it. There are quirks here and there, such as her tendency to scoop into notes for dramatic and expressive effect, and some odd breaks in the line (hard not to notice when singing next to Hvorostovsky, who is famous for his endless column of air). But none of these mattered compared to the overall effect: A soprano singing Verdi on the razor’s edge of disaster.

Together, in scenes from Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and “Un ballo in maschera,” the two artists have genuine chemistry. Hvorostovsky had to melt with paternal affection in his recognition scene with the “Boccanegra” Amelia and thunder with bloodthirsty intent in Renato’s confrontation with the “Un ballo in maschera” Amelia. He has mastered the spectrum of masculinity as articulated by 19th century melodrama, and with the slightest shading or a hint of nasal tone, he can turn from husband to brute, from paternalism to sinister bullying. But Radvanovsky more than held her own, with a substantial lower register and a top that is occasionally calculated but nevertheless thrilling.

Who brought them together? And why were they singing with the National Philharmonic, a local orchestra that has been growing (and sounds much better than I remember them from almost ten years ago) but isn’t quite at the level one might expect with two such stars on the program? It seems the singers met at the Met, when the baritone went backstage to compliment the soprano after hearing her in “Il Trovatore.” On April 1, they will bring their joint act, apparently forged in friendship, to Carnegie Hall, the last stop on a national tour.

That doesn’t explain the hook-up with the National Philharmonic, which sounded generally solid and professional under the baton of Marco Armiliato, but struggled at times to provide that invisible, but adamantine, rhythmic foundation upon which so much of Verdi’s music is constructed.

I heard Armiliato at the Met on Saturday night conducting the last of a run of Verdi’s “Attila.” Early Verdi (and though “Attila” was his ninth opera, it still qualifies as early) is more difficult to make meaningful than mature Verdi. When he premiered “Attila” in 1846, Verdi was still an interesting but constrained mid 19th-century composer, not the definitive master of Italian opera he would become only a few years later (with “Luisa Miller”? Or “Rigoletto”?). Armiliato, however, knows how to make early Verdi as creditable as anything by Rossini or Bellini or Donizetti, and his “Attila” was a delight.

Much of the music heard last night falls into the same general period as “Attila,” including the overtures to “Nabucco” (1842) and “Louisa Miller” (1849) and two arias from “Ernani” (1844). The “Nabucco” overture and “Ernani” excerpts didn’t show the ensemble at its finest. Here and there you could hear weaker players diminishing the collective effort, and when it came time for Verdi’s characteristic harder-than-it-sounds repetitive accompaniment figures, often they were cumbersome, and the singers sounded uncomfortable and awkward. Early Verdi is fragile stuff.

But the orchestra rose to occasion with bigger music, and by the time the two soloists came together for a scene from “Boccanegra,” the accompaniment was no longer an obtrusive presence, but a genuine psychological mirror to the shifting emotions of the drama. Some rhythmic difficulties in the introduction to the Tchaikovsky scene, an occasional solo line with noticeable flaws, and some sour violin intonation in the intermezzo from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” kept reminding one that they have work to do. But from the end of the first half of the program until the end of the concert, they transcended themselves and one is inclined to give credit both to Armiliato and the infectious high spirits of the evening.

The title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Onegin” is just about perfect for Hvorostovsky, who is handsome, has a seductive voice and knows how to send a soupcon of sneer to the back of the opera house. I interviewed Hvorostovsky once, and found him immensely personable and pleasant. But on stage, no one captures the frigid egotism of Onegin better, in part because Hvorostovsky has the astonishing ability to make simple, uninflected, unemotional singing sound like the height of haughty indifference.

It was a pleasure to hear it all once again, paired with Radvanovsky’s desperate but determined Tatiana. It earned the singers two encores. Radvanovsky previewed her upcoming Tosca in Denver with a very promising “Vissi d’arte,” and Hvorostovsky sang an unaccompanied Russian folksong, just as he did the night I first heard him in New York two decades ago. It sent chills down my spine then, and it did again last night.

The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and was dedicated, by Hvorostovsky, to the victims of Monday’s dreadful subway bombing.

Photo by Pavel Antonov courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society

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Lang Lang and chamber music


              There’s a plant on my shelf that sits in a metal pot and for some reason (sympathetic vibrations) it rattles when certain tones are played loudly on the stereo speakers nearby. I first noticed this while listening to a recording by Lang Lang, the 27-year-old piano phenomenon. In fact, most of Lang Lang’s recordings at some point make this poor plant buzz in its pot. All plants deserve names, so naturally I call this one Lang Lang.

            Poor Lang Lang (the plant) has had quite a work out after an afternoon spent listening to a new Deutsche Grammophon recording of Lang Lang (the pianist) performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor (with cellist Mischa Maisky and violinist Vadim Repin). It’s a big boned piece, almost a piano concerto with chamber accompaniment, and I’m afraid that if there are concerns out there about Lang Lang’s tendency to big-boned and somewhat unrefined playing, this new disk won’t allay them.

            And if there are concerns about the tendency of all-star chamber music ensembles—the kind that come together for a one-off performance or recording—to sound not particularly cohesive, this disk won’t allay them either. The Tchaikovsky trio is a famously over-scaled piece, orchestral in its basic thinking and not well adapted in its gestures and accompaniment figures to the chamber music sensibility. Tchaikovsky can be terribly blunt, and he needs an orchestra to carry the weight of the ideas he explores in this chamber work.

            We have Tchaikovsky’s busy correspondent Madame von Meck to thank, in part, for the score. She spent the summer of 1880 near Florence, and hired a trio of musicians to entertain her. Among them was an 18-year-old pianist she called Bussy, who was none other than Debussy. The French musician’s time there inspired him to compose an early piano trio (long lost, but discovered and returned to the repertoire in the 1980s). And it seems to have inspired Madame von Meck to pressure her epistolary friend to write his own trio, which he did in 1882.

            Even Tchaikovsky recognized that he had merely “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for my instruments.” But the piece still works, if the players throw themselves into it with emotional abandon and the dramatic sensibility a film by Douglas Sirk. So perhaps this is perfect Lang Lang material.

            Except that one would like to hear him tackle a piece that wasn’t quite so much up his natural allies, especially in his first chamber music recording. “Chamber music is like you’re playing in midfield, passing the ball everywhere,” he told Gramophone magazine a few months ago. “It’s about teamwork.”

            Indeed. But it’s also about scale and balance and textural clarity, and while there are patches throughout the recording that suggest ample teamwork, there are many passages that make one wish Lang Lang had chosen something by Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn. One feels compelled to listen because this is his first chamber music recording, and in the end, you get very little chamber music. And a whole lot of Lang Lang.

            It is possible to pull three famous musicians who don’t work together into the same room and get a respectable, even thrilling performance of the Tchaikovsky trio. I still cherish a silly album memorializing an 85th anniversary concert held at Carnegie Hall in 1976, including a magnificent reading of the trio by Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern and Mstislav Rostropovich. Teamwork is precisely the wrong word for the performance. It’s more like a collective hallucination, which we’re allowed to watch from the outside.

             But Lang Lang and his mates don’t get there. It is strangely fussy, this album, filled with misguided attempts to patch over the all too apparent seams of the music, strange tempo fluctuations, heightened dynamic extremes, and sustained fortissimo playing that loses character and impact. I keep thinking of that word, teamwork, and I wonder if it’s become a pernicious term in the way people think about chamber music, a mindless reflection of the status “teams” have taken on in corporate culture.

            Lang Lang has a very good team here. Maisky is fantastic throughout, and Repin, though he can be coarse, manages to project the violin line with enough force and presence that it isn’t lost in the piano thickets. But I suspect that most people will buy this recording because they’re Lang Lang fans, or interested in his development. And they won’t be surprised to learn that even when taking new steps, Lang Lang hasn’t strayed far from the comfort zone.

            I can’t say that for poor Lang Lang the vine, addled all day, and wishing, I’m sure, for something a little lighter, softer, and more delicate. Perhaps Bussy’s first piano trio will do the trick.

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