31 May 2017

CD REVIEW: Antonín Dvořák — STABAT MATER (E. Nakamura, E. Kulman, M. Spyres, J. Park; Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic; J. Bělohlávek; DECCA 483 1510)

IN REVIEW: Antonín Dvořák - STABAT MATER (DECCA 483 1510)ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Stabat Mater, Opus 58Eri Nakamura (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Michael Spyres (tenor), Jongmin Park (bass); Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic; Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor [Recorded in Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 23 – 25 March 2016; DECCA 483 1510; 2 CDs, 83:06; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

After publishing this review, the news of Maestro Bělohlávek’s was received.
This review is dedicated to his memory.

Likely penned either by Jacopone da Todi, a Thirteenth-Century lay brother of the Order of Penance of Saint Francis and one of the earliest writers to dramatize events from the Gospels for the stage, or by Innocent III, whose papacy straddled the turn of the Thirteenth Century, the ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ had by the beginning of the Fourteenth Century achieved widespread use in Marian novenæ and other liturgical rites. Its masterfully-crafted trochaic tetrameter movingly evincing the Virgin Mary’s sorrow as she observes Christ’s crucifixion, compellingly humanizing the Blessed Mother, the verses’ innate musical potential rapidly expanded beyond the hymn’s initial service in devotions to Our Lady of Sorrows. One of the earliest surviving settings of the text, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s circa 1590 arrangement for double chorus, likely commissioned by Pope Gregory XIV during the final year of his papacy, exerted influence on generations of composers including Richard Wagner, who published his own edition of the piece in 1877, and continues to be studied and admired today. Reflecting the increased exposure that Palestrina’s motet lent the text, musical treatment of ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’ reached a zenith in the Eighteenth Century with admired settings by Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico and Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Joseph Haydn, and Luigi Boccherini.

The secularism that surged throughout Europe in the wake of the French Revolution curtailed the fascination with Marian texts, but the legacy of Palestrina was advanced in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries by well-known ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ settings by Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Francis Poulenc, and Arvo Pärt. Among the most momentous adaptations of the words in the Nineteenth Century was one by Antonín Dvořák, whose Stabat Mater was completed in 1877 and first performed in 1880. Possessing the imaginative orchestration of his symphonic music and prefiguring the melodic fecundity of Rusalka, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater did much to broaden the composer’s reputation outside of his native Bohemia, particularly in England. The appreciation that the Stabat Mater garnered in its 1883 English première in Royal Albert Hall led to a commission for a work for the 1891 Birmingham Festival that became his setting of the Requiem Mass and aided the establishment of the forty-two-year-old Dvořák as a composer of international fame and importance.

The Stabat Mater was composed in an especially difficult time in Dvořák’s life. In 1876 and 1877, during which years the piece was written and orchestrated, the composer and his wife Anna lost all three of their eldest children, first their daughters Josefa and Růžena and later their son Otakar [the Otakar Dvořák whose book Antonín Dvořák, My Father is an invaluable source of information about the composer was a second son with the same name, born in 1885], tragedies that shaped Dvořák’s creative impulses and tested the limits of his devout faith. The Stabat Mater’s 1880 Prague première employed relatively modest numbers of performers, only partially revealing the grandeur of Dvořák’s score, the most expansive known setting of the text. When Dvořák’s friend and colleague Leoš Janáček conducted the Stabat Mater in Brno in 1882, both the quality and the majesty of the music began to be universally recognized. The continuity that Dvořák wrought among the ten movements of the Stabat Mater is remarkable in a work of eighty minutes’ duration in which only the first and final movements are thematically linked. Comparable in dimensions to Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Dvořák achieved similar if markedly softer dramatic tautness with virtually none of Verdi’s motivic writing. Despite—or perhaps because of—the sad circumstances of its genesis, the Stabat Mater was a seminal juncture in Dvořák’s artistic development: he would have been a great composer had he never written the Stabat Mater, but he is a greater one for its existence.

It is unlikely that there is any conductor active today whose credentials are better suited to leading performances of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater than those of Prague-born maestro Jiří Bělohlávek. A noted interpreter and champion of the music of his native land, Bělohlávek has continued the tradition of Rafael Kubelík, further widening the familiarity and appeal of Czech repertory. Dvořák’s Stabat Mater has been considerably more fortunate in recording studios than many scores by Czech composers, and the work’s extensive discography, which already contains two accounts conducted by Bělohlávek, one with the Prague Symphony Orchestra on Supraphon and one on Chandos with the orchestra heard on the present release, is a compendium of competitive recordings that any of Janáček’s operas—or Dvořák’s, for that matter—might envy. Still, Bělohlávek’s handling of the score in this expertly-engineered DECCA recording reaffirms the legitimacy of his reputation as a Dvořák interpreter of the first order. Here leading the Czech Philharmonic, by which ensemble his contract as Chief Conductor was recently extended through the 2021 – 2022 Season, Bělohlávek presides over a near-ideally-paced performance. The conductor’s tempi allow both soloists and choristers to articulate pitches and words with accuracy and clarity. This music flows through the veins of the Czech Philharmonic musicians, but heritage alone is not sufficient to ensure a successful performance. Bělohlávek emphasizes the score’s lyricism, and the instrumentalists respond with playing of poise and subtle intensity. When Dvořák requests larger-scaled sounds, the musicians provide them without sacrificing the carefully-assembled balances among sections. In passages that look back to Baroque models, conductor and orchestra adopt appropriate but never anachronistic phrasing that, like the greatest conductors’ and orchestras’ handling of Tchaikovsky’s homages to Mozart, highlight the ingenuity with which Dvořák absorbed the lessons of the past. Affirming his inclusion alongside Václav Talich, Karel Ančerl, and Kubelík amongst the most gifted Czech conductors, Bělohlávek exhibits with this Stabat Mater that his originality is born of the union of comprehension of tradition with alertness to the singular needs of each unique performer and performance.

The polished maturity and strength of his singing on these discs belies the youth of South Korean bass Jongmin Park. Singing ‘Quæ mœrebat et dolebat’ in the first movement with wonderfully steady, freely-produced tone, he supplies the sonorous foundation that solo quartets often lack in performances of the Stabat Mater. In the second movement’s quartet, Park voices ‘Quis est homo’ handsomely, his timbre like unblemished teak. The young bass projects a stream of gilded, perfectly-weighted, well-integrated sound in the fourth movement, singing ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’ with emotional warmth, and his voice resounds alluringly in the final quartet with chorus. In recent years, several promising basses have emerged from Asia, and Park here proves himself to be one of the best of them. The names of many accomplished basses appear in the Stabat Mater’s performance history, not least that of Franz Crass, who sang the piece with Kubelík for Bayerischer Rundfunk in 1964. As he sings on this recording, Park is a fully-qualified successor to Crass and the foremost basses who preceded him in performance of this music.

Anyone familiar with his singing of rôles like Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Polyeucte in Donizetti’s Les martyrs is aware that American tenor Michael Spyres is one of the preeminent singers of his generation, but his singing of Dvořák’s music in this performance of the Stabat Mater might surprise even his most ardent admirers. The security and smoothness of his repeated ascents to F♯ and G at the top of the stave in the opening ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ are not unexpected, but the exceptional beauty of the sounds that he emits surpasses even his own best efforts. Dvořák offers Spyres none of the stratospheric top notes that are his métier in bel canto repertory, but his top As in the Stabat Mater have tremendous impact. The tenor artfully blends his distinctive voice with his colleagues’ instruments in the second movement’s quartet. It is in the sixth movement that Spyres’s singing impresses most. His phrasing of ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ rivals his finest negotiations of Rossini and Donizetti cantilene. Dueting with the soprano in the eighth movement, Spyres voices ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’ eloquently, and here and in the final quartet with chorus the sheer attractiveness of his timbre enchants. Each of Spyres’s appearances on recordings to date has been enjoyable, but his singing on this recording of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is exquisite.

German mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman is a performer who garners attention not with flamboyance but with firm, focused singing and unaffected artistry that hearkens back to the best years of Ernestine Schumann-Heink’s career. In this recording of the Stabat Mater, she is consistently on excellent form, singing Dvořák’s music with impeccable control. Her lines in the quartet in the first movement are delivered with flexibility, and she fills her traversal of ‘Quis est homo qui non fleret’ in the second movement with even, warm tone. With its tuneful ritornello and deftly-deployed ground bass, the ninth movement could be taken for an arrangement of an aria from a sacred work by J. S. Bach, Händel, or Telemann, but Kulman never forgets that Dvořák’s name is on the cover of her score. The unexaggerated sobriety of her account of ‘Inflammatus et accensus’ exudes total understanding of the text, and, like Spyres and Park in their solos, she makes the caliber of the music all the more apparent by singing it so radiantly. Her part in the final quartet with chorus benefits from her commendably straightforward singing. Kulman seems in some ways to have come from a different era, her work wholly free of idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. This is especially welcome in performances of sacred music, and her singing of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is as unostentatiously poignant as it is pretty.

When first heard in ‘O quam tristis et afflicta’ in the opening movement, the voice of Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura is marginally unsteady, her vocalism sounding tentative and possibly under-rehearsed and compromised by uncertain intonation. Thereafter, her innate musicality quickly restores her confidence, guiding her rise to a superb top B. In the second movement, the quartet ‘Quis est homo,’ she sings sweetly but with the power necessary to soar above the ensemble. Nakamura splendidly complements Spyres in the eighth movement duet ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem,’ matching the gracefulness of his singing with her own silver-toned elegance. The soprano’s dulcet tones in the closing quartet recall Edith Mathis’s singing of this ingratiatingly-written but deceptively difficult music. After a slightly tenuous start, Nakamura builds a performance that captivates and communicates the profundity of Dvořák’s score.

Dvořák’s writing for the soloists in the Stabat Mater is distinguished, creating abundant moments of serenity, but it is for the chorus that many of the score’s most touching pages were conceived. In this performance, the prepared, stylish singing of the Prague Philharmonic Choir is rightly the resilient pedestal by which Dvořák’s portrait of the Holy Mother’s despair is supported. Like their orchestral counterparts, the choristers are linked to this music as if by genetics, but feeling this piece like an extension of an artist’s own psyche does not lessen its difficulties. The monumental Andante con moto ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ with which the work begins, practically a full-length cantata in its own right, receives from the choir a reading of stark luminosity, the contrapuntal passages managed with beguiling naturalness. Because nothing about the fugal singing seems feigned or pedantic, the barrier between the listener and Dvořák’s deeply personal evocation of a parent’s grief is surmounted. The third movement, ‘Eja, mater, fons amoris,’ reincarnates the spirit of Renaissance motets in a Romantic body, the choir’s unerring intonation heightening the emotional gravity of the composer’s simple but potent harmonic progressions.

Park and the chorus are equal partners in this performance of ‘Sancta mater, istud agas,’ the soloist engaging in dialogue with the choir rather than giving the impression of seeking to project over them. Only in the otherwise lovely pianissimo singing in the fifth movement, ‘Tui nati vulnerati,’ are there almost imperceptible flaws in the blends among vocal registers. Spyres, too, interacts with the chorus organically, their collaboration in the sixth movement marked by a common commitment to making the meaning of the words evident even to listeners with no knowledge of Latin. The choristers’ declamation of ‘Virgo, virginum præclara’ rings with sincerity, and their rousing singing of the complex counterpoint of ‘Quando corpus morietur’ with the soloists resolves the Stabat Mater with a suggestion of optimism. Chorus master Lukáš Vasilek clearly shares Bělohlávek’s intimate understanding of Dvořák’s score, and his training of the Prague Philharmonic Choir yields a performance worthy of the music.

It is easy to discern parallels between the ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ text’s study of Mary’s mourning and the pain of Dvořák’s loss of his children in the months in which his setting of the centuries-old words took shape. Originally structured as a work in seven movements with piano accompaniment, it was likely the deaths within a month of his daughter Růžena and son Otakar that prompted Dvořák to revise the score, adding three additional movements and orchestration. His surviving correspondence offers few clues about the composer’s innermost reactions to the success that his Stabat Mater ultimately enjoyed, but he was surely gladdened by audiences’ affection for this musical panegyric to a parent’s bereavement. 137 years after the work’s première, this marvelous recording perpetuates that affection with a performance of integrity and genuine devotion.