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)