Very few of the things that were wrong with Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recital on Wednesday night were actually Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s fault.
Even if you’re a superstar opera singer — “silver-maned Siberian baritone” is the press’s preferred epithet — with a rich, warm voice, it’s hard to fill a huge hall with a song recital. If Hvorostovsky had sung the same program — Rachmaninoff songs in the first half, a cycle by the Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov in the second — in the Terrace Theater, he would have blown everybody away. But the nuances of what he did tended to drift away in the large spaces of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, until he upshifted into more operatic mode in, for example, Rachmaninoff’s “I Am Waiting for You” or some stentorian utterances in the Sviridov.
And while this program might have drawn a full house in Russia, a lot of the music was unfamiliar to American audiences, and vocal recitals are the hardest sell in classical music, whoever is singing. The empty seats in the auditorium had to be a little demoralizing for those onstage. (Could the Washington Performing Arts Society, which presented the concert, not even give tickets away?)
On the other hand, Hvorostovsky’s sartorial choices were probably his own. With his “mane” now grown out to the shoulders and a long, flared jacket embellished with a striking, glittery collar, he looked like a lion tamer, seeking to control the crowd with an admonishing raised finger when people clapped in the wrong places.
All of this made for a package that didn’t quite match this singer’s undeniable integrity. He sang his way easily into his program, his voice scaled down (and sometimes sounding a little squeezed) in the Rachmaninoff songs, gentle and tender in “Lilacs,” with prophetic intensity in “The Raising of Lazarus.”
And he put his heart and soul into Sviridov’s “Petersburg: A Vocal Poem,” intense settings of nine dark poems by Alexander Blok. This poem carried Russian bleakness to the edge of stereotype: The song “A Voice From the Chorus” basically offers the thesis that everything is awful and likely only to get worse, backed up with inky music spasming in anguished chords from Ivari Ilja at the piano. The cycle as a whole offered a lot for a dramatic singer to sink his teeth into, from the characterization of the drunkard in “I Am Nailed to the Tavern Counter” to a brief moment of wistful sweetness in “The Breeze Has Brought From Far Away.” Hvorostovsky, a consummate dramatic artist, made much of the mood shifts and sang powerfully.
Still, it was a lot of unfamiliar and unexplained music with which to confront an audience. It’s not Hvorostovsky’s fault that there is such a disconnect between performer and public at so many classical concerts. But when the encores began and he started talking to the audience and kidding around at the piano (as Ilja’s music fell off the rack during Rachmaninoff’s “In the Silence of the Night”), I was struck that a barrier seemed to have fallen that didn’t need to have been there in the first place. He followed up with Iago’s Credo from Verdi’s “Otello” and a juicy Neapolitan song, Tagliaferri’s “Passione,” a nod to a popular taste that the rest of the program had only obliquely addressed.