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concert review

When the beauty and power of music is joined to the charisma of a commanding presence on a stage, art is embodied in a physical way, giving it a new depth and resonance.

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, with his silver mane, and majestic appearance, has long been the model of a charismatic performer. But he added a special poignancy to that presence on Sunday night with his stunning recital in Koerner Hall as he presented a taxing, lyrical recital of mainly Russian songs. The extra dimension? Hvorostovsky, 53, and one of the great voices of his generation, revealed last June that he was receiving treatment for a brain tumour. He has had to cancel many engagements, but presented this recital, with pianist Ivari Ilja here, as well as in Chicago and New York.

Great artists like to hide the struggles they contend with in making their art, but Hvorostovsky's illness made the charisma of this charismatic artist all the more telling, as the mask of potency that is the artist's shield, became a bit more transparent and tender. A bit shaky at times, holding onto the piano for comfort or support, thinner than we've seen him, Hvorostovsky's determination and artistic instinct nonetheless carried him through the program with style, suppleness, grace and verve. By the time we reached the five songs by Richard Strauss with which the Russian baritone ended the program, and his strength increasing with each number, any lingering doubts about the health of Hvorostovsky's art had long been put to rest.

Before those Strauss songs, Hvorostovsky's recital had taken us on a tour of the relatively neglected world of 19th-century Russian art song, with selections by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. The work of all three composers was a revelation. Glinka's songs, rare as they are, showed a surprising variety of tone and style. Rimsky-Korsakov's settings of texts by Tolstoy and Pushkin were lifted out of the conventional by musical excellence. And Tchaikovsky's unjustly neglected songs shone brightly, no surprise for one of the great melody writers of Western music.

In all of this repertoire, Hvorostovsky reminded us of why his is a rare talent. Full-voiced when he needed to be (although with perhaps a little less resonance than in the past), slimming down to a whisper in a second, he showed his immense musical intelligence in the way he shaped his phrases and lines. Even if we couldn't understand the words, Hvorostovsky let us know exactly what a song was about, just through musical expression alone. And his fabled breath control, his ability to shape a note and clothe it in various colours all on a single breath, was in great evidence.

However, it was perhaps in the Strauss lieder that Hvorostovsky's art was at its peak. His exquisite Morgen, (Morning), with a sensitive and beautiful introduction by accompanist Ilja, shone with the muted mists of daybreak. Befreit was joyous and ecstatic; Cacilie boisterous and sly. Now in full voice, his confidence and power increasing with every selection, Hvorostovsky completed his evening's task – to make music with all his usual charisma, despite his unusual circumstances.

The Koerner Hall audience, packed to the rafters, and with at least 100 people seated onstage, loved every minute of Dima's recital, and him as well. By the time the encores began, Hvorostovsky, waving and smiling to the audience, was surrounded by at least 15 enormous bouquets of flowers. Putting them on the floor, he ended the evening a cappella, with a Russian folk song, clearly enjoyed by the large Russian contingent in the audience.

And the concert had come full circle. In the end, we were left with simply the voice of one person, emanating from one human body, with its strengths and frailties, speaking to us all.

Special to The Globe and Mail.