Across town the Proms were sounding their final hurrah for another year, but Wigmore Hall opened their 2012/13 season with an altogether more serious repertoire of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich songs. As the well established partnership of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and pianist Ivari Ilja, whom I last heard together at Wigmore Hall in another all-Russian programme in 2010, walked onto the unusually gloomily-lit stage and reached for their sheet music, the auguries for what was to come seemed far from auspicious. This was somewhat surprising, not least given that the duo have fairly recently released a CD of Rachmaninov songs, which no doubt this concert was in part aiming to promote.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Taken song by song, the 11 Rachmaninov songs which comprised the first half of the concert were pleasing enough, but as a group it was like being asked to digest one richly flavoured, meaty morsel after another in quick succession. It is possible, indeed tempting, to cite the prevailing sense of disillusion conveyed by the lyrics of romances such as “Within my heart”, “The night is mournful”, “I am alone again” and “I am waiting for you” as contributing to this. The diet became harder to stomach with the inclusion of the overly serious religious songs “By the gates of a holy temple” and “The raising of Lazarus”, whereas more of the inner contentment and joy of “How fair this spot” and “Lilacs” would have proved a welcome relief. It was a further pity then that Hvorostovsky’s approach did not seek to make more of his chosen repertoire. His famed vocal technique was secure as ever, his tone was constantly robust and his diction precise, but song delivery needs more than just those qualities. What was needed was for the passionate feeling behind the words to spring forth impulsively and not to remain caught between printed page and the singer’s intermittent eye contact with his audience. Only rarely did Hvorostovsky willingly keep the volume much below a mezzo-forte, notably in “Lilacs”, showing as with the recital two years ago that his innate urge for showmanship can run at odds with the requirements of an intimate recital acoustic such as Wigmore Hall, that allow inferences to have impact. An increasingly obvious tendency to aspirate when drawing breath further marred his natural ability to phrase with ease. On balance Ivari Ilja’s accompaniments were purposeful if a little lacking in delicacy, though in “By the gates of a holy temple”, for example, his playing neatly underlined the text’s sense of seething narrative.

An interval change of attire for Hvorostovsky from formal wear to open-necked black silk shirt for the performance of Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti was not accompanied by any relaxation of his serious approach to the music. In contrast to the Rachmaninov, however, the seriousness added more than it detracted from the cycle, even though some extreme vocal declamation remained in evidence. Whereas I had last heard this cycle in its smoothed-out orchestral incarnation, what struck me this time was the sheer angularity of Shostakovich’s writing, most notably in the accompaniment. From the sparsity of the opening song, “Truth”, through to the elemental anguish of “Anger”, Ilja and Hvorostovsky identified with the granite-like quality of Shostakovich’s conception, inspired in no small part by Buonarroti the poet-sculptor. Ilja brought a distinctly chiselled approach to bear throughout “Creativity”, to echo the poetry’s narrative of a sculptor at work. Just as Michelangelo’s sculptures of slaves appear to emerge from their granite blocks semi-finished, here Hvorostovsky tellingly explored the sentiments of lingering contemplation particularly apparent in the final three songs of the cycle, “Night”, “Death” and “Immortality”.

After lengthy enthusiastic applause, three encores were given – all Rachmaninov songs and, thankfully, sung without reference to a score. The sequence illustrated the added sense of fluency that the first half of the concert could have had. The first song, “In the silence of the secret night”, is a particular Hvorostovsky showpiece, with its held final note a crowd-pleaser that did not negate an instinctual feel for the song’s passion. If only it had all been performed this way – but at least the best was saved until last.