On Wednesday night Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center hosted a Russian art song recital of the internationally acclaimed Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and his longtime concert partner, Estonian pianist Ivari Ilya. As the audience’s excitement about seeing this renowned recitalist was building up, it was disappointing to see quite a few empty seats in the house. Considering the enthusiasm that Hvorostovsky has been received with during his 23-year-old collaboration with Washington Performing Arts Society, most likely, this decrease of interest had to be attributed to the choice of the recital program.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky © Pavel Antonov
Dmitri Hvorostovsky
© Pavel Antonov

Art song is a lyrics-based genre. Expressive as its music may be, it lacks the catchy tunefulness that we find so attractive in opera, yet is closely connected with the lyrics, filled with allegories and symbols that are not always easy to understand or relate to. Naturally, when music and lyrics are inseparable, it may be hard to enjoy one without fully understanding the other.

Indeed, by selecting an entirely Russian program of rarely performed Rachmaninov pieces and a vocal poem by Sviridov, completely unknown to American audiences, Hvorostovsky took quite a risk. With a fair part of the audience destined to sit through the concert with their eyes glued to the English translations in the program, the pressure of making this foreign repertoire understandable and, most importantly, enjoyable for non-Russian audience members fell solely on the artist.

It was a joy to see that at age 50 this consummate vocalist is still unafraid of challenges and still treats music with the same utmost respect and inspiration as he did back in 1989, when his victory in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition set the opera world on fire and brought him international fame.

Throughout the first part of the program that spiraled from purely impressionistic elegies to more intense, prophecy-like parables by Rachmaninov, Hvorostovsky’s voice sounded warm and flexible, and with the exception of just a few uncomfortable transitions to the high register, boasted a beautiful ringing tone. His darkly emotional voice, refined phrasing, expressive word painting and, above all, a special tension in his singing that echoed even in the music between his lines, revealed a true artist, who masterfully used his instrument to paint anything from an idyllic countryside landscape in “Morning” to a portrait of a broken-hearted lover in “At the Gates of the Holy Cloister”. Vibrant and moving, this performance could hardly leave anyone indifferent.

When after the intermission Hvorostovsky requested no applause between the numbers, it was clear that we were up for a wholly dramatic performance.

“Petersburg”, a vocal poem by the Soviet neo-Romantic composer Georgy Sviridov, written to the lyrics of the great Russian symbolist Alexander Blok, is a truly unique piece. Centered around post-revolution St Petersburg, overtaken by the Bolsheviks, this vocal poem consists of nine allegoric ballads, each featuring a character whose dreams and hopes were taken away by the Revolution.

Bringing to life nine “children of Russia’s dreadful years”, Hvorostovsky did not focus his performance on one particular character or even the whole glorious city that pre-revolution St Petersburg was. In his nuanced, deeply poetic performance, a drunken song of a poet drowning his sorrows in wine, the sobbing of a young bride walking behind her fiancé’s coffin and a bitter sigh of a mother unable to protect her child from the darkness of “the black city”, all blended together into one heart-piercing voice of the all-enduring Russian soul, wandering in the twilight of its unknown future.

As I looked around the house, I noticed that most programs with the English translations had been closed and set aside. During the performance the audience was able to connect with the music, enjoy it and understand the meaning of its lyrics through the power of the artist’s voice and, apparently, needed no other support to appreciate it. Hard as Hvorostovsky’s challenge to himself had been, he knew how to handle it and met it head on, turning his recital into an eye-opening musical experience and a concert to remember.

From Washington DC Hvorostovsky takes this program to Carnegie Hall, where he will perform it on 27 March. So should you find yourselves within a reasonable distance from New York next week, get your ticket to this breathtaking recital of Russian art song and make no mistake about it: this incredible artist will help you connect with the music and make it your own.