S & H Concert Review

Dvořák Stabat Mater : Soloists; Ealing Choral Society; London Orpheus Choir and Orchestra/James Gaddarn. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Saturday April 6th, 2002 (CC)


Perhaps it is the almost Wagnerian length that explains the rarity of performances of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater (this performance lasted about one and a half hours). Whatever the reason, this work deserves more frequent airing: it is truly written from the heart, with the utmost sincerity of intent. Dvořák’s level of inspiration is consistently high, and there are countless ravishing moments.

The circumstances of composition may well explain the direct emotional impact it has on the listener. Dvořák’s two-year old daughter, Josepha, died in late 1875: Dvořák started work on the Stabat Mater the following year. In 1877, another of Dvořák’s children, Ruzena, died in an accident; in September of that year the composer’s remaining offspring, Otakar, was taken from him by smallpox. It was under the cloud of this succession of personal disasters that the Stabat Mater came to fruition. The first performance was in Prague in December 1880. It was a success.

The Stabat Mater is a quite remarkable work, fully deserving of wider recognition, and we are in debt to conductor James Gaddarn and his forces for bringing this work once more into the light of day. The text of the ‘Stabat Mater’ itself is almost unutterably beautiful and has inspired a number of notable settings (Pergolesi’s is probably the most famous). Dvořák’s musical reaction is wide-ranging, extending from the piously devotional to the positively operatic. The pacing is never hurried, but unfolds naturally (to give you an idea, each of he first two movements, ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’ and ‘Quis est homo’, lasts twenty minutes): James Gaddern realised it beautifully, clearly bringing out the best from his choirs and orchestra.

The solo quartet worked well as a unit, complementing each other well, perhaps surprisingly, given the last minute substitution of tenor soloist. Michael Hart Davis replaced the Brendan McBride, and did so with professionalism. He handled the high-lying ‘Fac me vere tecem flere’ well, even if a smoother legato would have been more in keeping with the spirit of the line.

Individual highlights came in the shape of the bass solo, ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’, Ian Caddy’s well-focussed bass exhibiting beautifully smooth legato in forte passages, and in contralto Beverley Mills’ commendable command of a wide compass in ‘Inflammatus et accensus’. The duet for soprano and tenor, ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’ was remarkable, not least in that it exemplified Dvořák’s seemingly contradictory achievement of endless, easy-flowing invention that nevertheless carried with it numerous layers of meaning and emotion.

Whilst not possessed of great depth of string tone or perfectly managed ensemble, the orchestra supported and commented on the vocal contributions with great concentration and commitment. The well rehearsed choirs (for there were two combined) sang with the utmost belief in their task throughout. It is a tribute to all concerned that my attention did not waver once.

The Stabat Mater is blessed by two recordings that do it justice. Rafael Kubelík leads his Bavarian forces on the medium-priced twofer DG 453 025-2, coupling it with the Legends; the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Shaw offer a more recent alternative on Telarc CD80506 (there is also a rather sublime recording made in Dresden with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli. That is available on DG 471 033-2 – ed)

Colin Clarke

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