At the cloakroom, it was already clear that this evening was not going to be standard fare at the Staatsoper. Russian was in the air, and Russians had bought their fair share of the tickets to this completely sold out event: wearing extravagant gowns, sporting elegant hairstyles and reserving bottles of champagne for the interval. I consider myself a rather fashion-conscious concertgoer, but last night I felt significantly underdressed.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky © Askonas Holt
Dmitri Hvorostovsky
© Askonas Holt

There was plenty of Russian on the recital programme too. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ivara Ilja prepared an evening of songs in their mother tongue (with the exception of two of the three Petrarca sonnets settings by Liszt). Some songs were standard fare, like the block of Rachmanov which rounded off the evening, including favourites such “Lilacs” and “Sing not to me, beautiful maiden”. Others were admittedly barely known in their homeland, much less here in Vienna, such as four virtuosic offerings by Nikolai Karlowitsch Medtner.

However, it was a group of Tchaikovsky's romances which opened the programme. A beaming Hvorostovsky took to the stage accompanied by his mild-mannered, fleet-fingered recital partner of 11 years, Ivara Ilja. After charmingly begging the audience to stop using flash photography, the duo launched into a five song set, ending with “Don Juan's Serenade”.

So how was the performance, you ask? In a word: unique. Hvorostovsky bellowed through texts about the quiet stillness of night and verbose praise of nature with equal enthusiasm, not dropping once below a mezzo forte until the very last song of the set. But the audience absolutely loved it, applauding frenetically between every single song, sometimes even before the music had finished. Hvorostovsky has the sort of charisma and star power that one associates in the classical world only with bygone figures like Paganini and Liszt. His stance is one of action; he periodically raises his arms to the sky, shakes his mane and absolutely powers through long lines with his inexorable breath control. His voice is still attractive and he oozes testosterone from his every pore. He is the silver fox of the operatic stage, even wearing a tuxedo with sparkling lapels, yet he looked masculine enough to wrestle a puma to the ground and then pose for GQ.

Ivari Ilja © Askonas Holt
Ivari Ilja
© Askonas Holt

Ivari Ilja was as modest in his presentation as Hvorostovsky was flamboyant. An absolutely unstoppable technician and flawless partner, he executed feats that defied understanding, and did so with complete calm and understatement. Much of the Medtner set is ridiculously technical, full of unstoppable runs and intricate passage work, but Ilja made light of them, with playing of absolutely clarity and with purity of intention. Primarily a soloist, his sound initially lacked some of the warmth and subtlety I prefer (though the piano tuning wasn't perfect), but he had plenty of commendable musical moments, particularly in the second half. There is nothing the man can’t play and he’s got voicing, articulation and musical intelligence to spare.

It was difficult not to be impressed. The duo was dragged back on stage to perform four encores (including Iago’s aria from Otello and a couple of Italian crowd-pleasers) and the audience could have happily kept them there until midnight. Any singer who packs out the Staatsoper for an evening of song is a true hero in my book. I cannot say that I was deeply moved or that the recital resembled my conception of what art song is all about, but then again, that's not why one goes to hear Hvorostovsky. As long as he programmes Russian fare and doesn’t venture into the land of Schubert, Brahms and Wolf, I’ve little doubt Hvorostovsky will always be warmly welcomed in Vienna.