Russian baritone's power translates beautifully

Thursday, May 25, 2006 - Donald Rosenberg

Plain Dealer Music Critic

We must begin at the end. To wind up his recital Tuesday for the Art Song Festival at Baldwin-Wallace College, Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov sent a Verdian jolt through the audience with "O Carlo, ascolta," Posa's final aria in "Don Carlo."

It was a stunning performance by an artist at the height of his vocal and dramatic powers. Chernov's recital with superb pianist Semyon Skigin also was a coup for the festival, which had to find a singer at the last minute to replace Dmitri Hvorostovsky, another important Russian baritone, who canceled over the weekend reportedly because of illness. Those who returned their tickets because Hvorostovsky didn't show made a big mistake.

Chernov has sung often at the Metropolitan Opera since 1991 in works by Puccini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Verdi. Chernov is a striking presence, with long locks and an intensity that sears. Whether in costume or dressed for recital, he is a theatrical animal who creates a character or tells a story as if living it.

His program Tuesday, aside from two Verdi encores, was Russian, which provided the audience with a rare and authentic musical experience. Chernov's voice is typically Slavic in focus and darkness, and he probes the expressive depths of a song.

With Skigin contributing luxurious, vibrant soundscapes, Chernov performed works by eight Russian composers of Romantic persuasion. The baritone may have been tired after traveling from Europe; he sometimes sang a hair below pitch. But the ardor, anguish and humor he brought to the music gripped the ears.

Chernov oozed charm in a Borodin song about a lovely fishermaiden and went to the heart of a piece by the same composer in which the protagonist mourns a deceased sweetheart. By contrast, two Glinka love songs in waltz rhythm found Chernov and Skigin enjoying the insouciant nuances.

In a night full of highlights, one special moment was an amorous serenade by Alexander Dargomizhsky that Chernov shaped as if he were the hottest Don Giovanni. Another triumph, Anton Rubinstein's "The Kur's Waves Are Boiling," unfolded in hushed rapture, as if the baritone would burst from longing.

Two songs by Tchaikovsky suggested Chernov is a penetrating interpreter of Eugene Onegin, and a pair of pieces by Alexander Gretchaninov were homages to country and freedom to which the guests applied heroic force.

And then came the night's Italian master, first by way of a song, "La preghiera del poeta," which Chernov sang with beguiling simplicity. The "Don Carlo" aria that followed drove the audience over the edge of enthusiasm. Chernov is a brilliant recitalist in Russian repertoire. He is nothing short of magnificent in Verdi.

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© 2006 The Plain Dealer
Many thanks to The Plain Dealer for their kind permission to re-print this review