Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Stabat Mater, op. 58
Eva Jenisová (soprano), Hana Štolfová-Bandová (contralto). Vladimir Doležal (tenor). Jiří Sulženko (bass)

Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno
Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra/Leoš Svárovský
Rec. Live, 23.3.1996, Stadion Studio, Brno
SUPRAPHON SU 3181-2232 [2 CDs: 45’47"+39’14"]


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Dvořák’s religious works have had a fringe existence over the last century or so. The Victorians loved this Stabat Mater and it brought Dvořák instant fame in England. They were not much more than politely appreciative of the oratorio St. Ludmila, the Mass in D or the Requiem (in the latter case Bernard Shaw, the sworn enemy of all Requiems, was on hand to rubbish it). The late, concise Te Deum has divided opinion between those who think it absolutely gorgeous and those who find it too pretty-pretty for what it’s supposed to be. But the Stabat Mater remained in the repertoire for a long time, even if by the time I started my listening, in the mid-1960s, performances had dwindled to virtually zero, and tended to be very tedious when you did encounter one.

There is nothing tedious about the present performance, which movingly vindicates Dvořák’s inspiration all along the line. The chief responsibility for this is clearly the conductor’s. He has the secret of letting the work flow, giving it its head when a moment of drama comes, never allowing it to sag in the gentler moments. You never feel him pushing the music, nor pulling it back, but he always gives it a clear sense of direction. The outburst of joy towards the end is electrifying. He also sees that the actual sound is always luminous, never heavy, blending Dvořák’s piquant wind-writing skilfully with the voices. He knows how to give the singers space to breathe, obtaining a heartfelt response from the choir and particularly good results from the soloists when they are singing in ensemble.

There is precious little evidence chorally or orchestrally that this is a live performance (but do home listeners want to hear the applause at the end every time?). In the case of the soloists, often cruelly exposed, there are a few moments which might, in other circumstances, have been retaken. The tenor launches "Fac me vere" a little awkwardly but soon picks up and this is a movement, often considered to be the weakest, which wins through in this performance by its sheer sincerity. The only slight disappointment is the contralto. She contributes well to the quartet "Quis es homo" but fails to shine in her solo movement "Inflammatus et accensus", sounding woolly and ill-focused.

The recording is not especially analytical but the overall effect is excellent, very much a concert-hall sound. The booklet has a good essay on the work and notes on the performers in four languages; the Stabat Mater text is in Latin only, but in this case I feel that the poem is so universally known that it is a luxury to have it printed here at all. In one thing Supraphon have disappointed me. The quaint English translations on their old LP sleeves were among the joys of my youth; the translators named here have promisingly Czech-sounding names, laden with accents, but they seem to know English as well as I do. Ah well, it’s all for the better really.

For a work on the edge of the repertoire, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater has been fairly lucky in recent decades. If we admit that the ancient Talich is a special case and the Smetáček from the early 1960s is also elderly by now, versions from Belohlávek, Kubelík, Rahbari, Rilling, Sawallisch and Shaw have all been highly esteemed, though I don’t guarantee they are all available at this particular moment. Most of them have something extra on the second disc, but surprisingly little considering that the work is only just too long for a single CD – how record companies must long for some smart young conductor to shave those 6 or 7 minutes off it, but there seems a remarkable consensus of opinion that it lasts between 85 and 87 minutes. I should think anybody could be happy with this performance and it’s up to you to make a few calculations regarding prices, fill-ups and value for money when deciding which to choose. Maybe the following extracts will make you feel you need look no further. Firstly, the beginning of the third movement, "Eja, Mater" (CD 1: track 3 from the beginning). Listen to how delicately the dotted rhythms are treated, becoming neither jerky on the one hand nor flabby on the other, to how the pulsing crotchets seem to flow forward, never declining into a heavy trudge, and to how the lyrical melodies sing out warmly. Then part of the fourth movement, "Fac, ut ardeat" (CD 1: track 4 from 1’ 51"), just to show how sheerly lovely – and characteristic of the composer - this music can be, and also to hear the fine bass soloist mingling with the rest. Incidentally, Dvořák’s Latin was notoriously at fault here – "ardeat" should be accented on the first syllable – but nobody has dared to "correct" it as far as I know. Finally, soloists and chorus joining together as the last movement heads urgently towards its great climax (CD 2: track 6 from 2’ 36").
Christopher Howell

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