When I first heard Dmitri Hvorostovsky in recital years ago, I felt – despite the beauty of his voice and his mastery of Russian song – that he was champing at the bit, just pining for a hero’s role, a big stage, and an orchestra and company around him. When I saw him later in the opera house, he appeared to be entirely in his element, and to have claimed his birthright. Of course, he’s now entirely in his element as a recitalist, too. But, hearing Simon Keenlyside in recital at Alice Tully Hall this season, I had the same thought, at least for the first half of the program (Schumann’s Dichterliebe). His voice was fine, but he seemed ill at ease, even though he had made an acclaimed recording of the cycle for SONY Classics. Curiously, during the second half of his recital (a compendium of four of Wolf’s Mörike lieder, and nine by Schubert), he was relaxed, wholly in command, and sensitive to the delicacy of the songs. Then I saw his Hamlet and, sure enough, he filled the music, the drama, and the role to overflowing, matching the flawless Ophelia of Marlis Petersen. This was a performance of brooding, expressive physicality; never-to-be-forgotten, and you can see him again soon — he’s due to return to the Met next season to play Roderigo in Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Don Carlo.
Thomas Hampson also did Dichterliebe seven weeks later, in the same hall. But, of course, for the by-now bilingual Hampson, Schumann is second nature. His shaping of the cycle is without peer, and surely the absolute equal of his large-scale performances in Don Giovanni, La Traviata, Faust, and most of opera’s core repertoire. (Full disclosure of a local guilty pleasure: while browsing at Gracious Home on a snowy day, I overheard a familiar, richly modulated voice: the baritone, in down coat, fur hat, and gloves, deep in conversation with a clerk about domestic hardware. As I lurked among the detergents in stealth mode, it became clear he knew his nuts and bolts as well as his lieder and arias.) Hampson has been working overtime this year. But, between the operas, the recitals, the recordings, the lectures, his residency at the Philharmonic, and his master classes, it was oddly comforting to discover he still does his own shopping, and can wield a wrench in an emergency.
As for the New York Philharmonic: in two recent concerts it has never sounded better. During Valery Gergiev’s three-week Stravinsky marathon, I was lucky enough to hear both the Violin Concerto in D (with the excellent Leonidas Kavakos) and Oedipus Rex (seldom performed) with all the authority and passion the conductor brings to this repertoire. Three weeks earlier, I went to hear Antonio Pappano (for once, accompanying neither soloists nor singers) having his way with Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, and with Brahm’s mighty Fourth Symphony during a one-hour Rush Concert. I have heard Pappano at the Met, and have taken seriously the unstinting praise of many music professionals who consider him at the top of his game. Well, he is! The Mozart (not the composer’s best) was good, but the Brahms–ah, the Brahms—was sensational! Brahms didn’t write his First symphony until he was in his mid-40s, and completed the Fourth when he was 52. Mature, and full of a warmth that, in a performance like Pappano’s, was more like the glow of an extended embrace than an exercise in four movements. It unleashed a standing ovation–tumultuous, and small repayment for 19th-century favors granted and received in the 21st.