Billed as 'a Russian journey', Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Barbican concert took us from the divine to the sublime and we were only saved from the ridiculous by the sheer quality of the Russian baritone's singing. He was accompanied variously by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the Academy of Choral Art Choir, Moscow and the Style of 5 Folk Ensemble. Throughout it all, he strutted around like a peacock in his tight trousers and his black, opened necked shirt with twinkling cuff-links. His hauteur and supreme confidence, however, were justified: he is undoubtedly a great singer with the kind of charisma and star quality that are rare these days.
The programme was split into four parts and the first quarter was given over to religious music. The opener was Bortnyansky's Cherubim for a capella choir (dating from the early nineteenth century). This was followed by more rarities: works from the start of the twentieth century for choir and solo baritone, products of an increasingly secularised Russian Orthodox Church influenced by opera. The choir, as one would expect, boasted some particularly fine basses and the other voices, especially the tenors, had a recognisable Slavic tinge to them.
Hvorostovsky, perhaps in deference to these pieces' religious origins, was understated and respectful. Although he sang impeccably, this was the only part of the concert where he used a score and the evident lack of familiarity made for a rather muted performance.
For the operatic set which followed, the Moscow Chamber Ochestra and conductor Constantine Orbelian took the stage and I was immediately a little worried about the fact that this really was a chamber orchestra: I counted just ten violins, four violas, three 'cellos and one double bass. This meant that the opening of Gryaznoy's aria from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride was hopelessly underpowered. The ear adjusted, though, and if the first bars of 'Po mostu mostochku' from Eugene Onegin, one of two choruses inserted to give Hvorostovsky a breather, again showed up the inadequacies of such a small orchestra, at least there was no danger of the voice being drowned out. Hvorostovsky himself seemed to loosen up a little away from the church's gaze; coming on for the Rimsky-Korsakov he checked the stage area at his disposal by leaning back and forward before rubbing his thighs and, Elvis-like, flicking up his collars. Although he sang well in the Rimsky-Korsakov aria, the more declamatory nature of this piece was less suited to Hvorostovsky's style than the two Tchaikovsky arias which followed.
In 'Vi mne pisali', Onegin's first-act aria, and Yeletsky's aria from Act II of The Queen of Spades he was commanding. His combination of style, technique and vocal seductiveness showed why he's been peerless in this repertoire for two decades. The voice in itself is not what makes him such a pleasure to listen to – it's not a particularly large instrument and can sound a little veiled, almost dull, with no brightness or 'ping' high up – it is rather the astonishing way he uses it. His almost superhuman breath control allows him to spin a long, seductive legato and the timbre, more a rich bronze than brilliant gold, is consistently beautiful throughout the range. For opera-lovers in the audience, these three arias would have made the ticket price worthwhile on their own.
That was it for opera, though, as the second half of the concert took us into the world of Russian folksong and romance. The orchestra was joined on stage by the three players (two balalaikas and an accordion) of The Style of 5 Folk Ensemble who played a central role in the instrumental piece, In Memory of Esenin, which opened the set. When Hvorostovsky returned it was in yet another guise. The smile that had only fleetingly showed itself in the first half broadened as he relaxed into his role as entertainer. There was obviously a large Russian contingent in the audience and enthusiasm grew from one well-known song to another; vocally, he remained a paragon of style and finesse. I can't say many of these numbers were familiar to me, but they were all performed and sung with vigour and the Style of 5 excelled themselves, in particular in the rip-roaring if rather poorly compiled medley which finished the set.
After folk songs we entered the realm of popular Soviet song of the '60s and '70s. A stage hand brought on a microphone as a portent of what was to come. Although he was amplified far more tastefully than, say, Bryn Terfel was at the Royal Festival Hall's Sweeney Todd in the summer, I still felt it was a shame to be denied hearing more of Hvorostovsky's voice without artificial intervention. It didn't help the case for these songs either: essentially popular in style, they are settings of some relatively high-brow poetry and have lofty aspirations that I feel would have been better served in 'unplugged' performance. However, neither Hvorostovsky, now soaking up the ever more enthusiastic adulation of his fans, nor the audience seemed to care. Although this repertoire is essentially unsuited to the singer's silky smooth baritone, perhaps the most civilised example of a perfectly honed classical vocal technique, and despite a couple of slightly misjudged phrases in a cloying mezzo-voce, he managed through the force of his personality to prevent it from degenerating into parody.
By the time the programme finished, Hvorostovsky holding his final top note for an eternity backed by the full chorus and orchestra, we were already running twenty minutes late. A couple of encores (including an irresistible rendition of Ochi Chernyi) and a standing ovation later, the concert came to a close, a full forty minutes late. It says something for this singer's star quality that he just about managed to make such a varied programme convincing. Although opera fans would no doubt have preferred some more Tchaikovsky or even some Verdi (for that they'll have to wait for January and La traviata at Covent Garden), only the churlish would begrudge Hvorostovsky the chance to indulge in this journey through his country's rich and varied musical traditions.
By Hugo Shirley