Never lacking in fine recordings the Stabat Mater has fared rather poorly in concert where performances are rare. In less committed hands the tone of quiescent contemplation can come perilously close to undifferentiated facelessness but in a determined and convinced performance the subtle inflections of the movements assume a far more individual response to lamentation and loss. The work’s ingenious allusions and reminiscences thus take on a richer, more human profile; if conductors fail to differentiate between the mood of each movement that’s far more their responsibility than Dvořák’s though it can’t be denied that the work lacks consistency and some movements – Fac me tecum flere in particular – are riddled with weaknesses.
This is a generally recommendable addition to the catalogue albeit not one that challenges the front-runners. There is some indistinctness in the sound – and the sopranos are inclined to spread somewhat, especially in the opening and taxing Stabat mater dolorosa. John Aler, despite his ardency and Slavonic affectations is no Beno Blachut and has a heavy beat to his voice which I – others may disagree – find unattractive. Baritone Ding Gao is sturdy if somewhat immobile and mezzo Marietta Simpson certainly forceful. Christine Brewer emerges as the most recommendable of the vocal quartet and an intelligent one to boot. Shafer takes this opening movement quite briskly and encourages consolatory woodwinds and accommodating the disjunctions of line that mirror and amplify the text. The soloists reinforce their initial impressions in the second movement Quis est homo? Simpson forces her tone somewhat, Aler is disconcertingly tremulous, if heroically so, and the orchestral principals acquit themselves with distinction in their obbligato roles. We can hear the lack of colouration in baritone Gao’s voice most especially in Fac ut ardeat cor meum but he is clear eyed enough – and behind him there is some excellent orchestral work and a discerning choral blend. Shafer’s speeds are variably convincing. Clearly there is room for individual latitude but the relation of Fac me tecum flere and Virgo Virginum praeclara seems to me unclear. The former is an Andante con moto the latter a Largo, though these tempo indications aren’t given in Naxos’s booklet, and Shafer has tried too hard to bring an active component to the latter. It emerges, at this relatively brisk speed – and more crucially relative to the preceding movement – as disjoint, unflowing, with overloud choral entry points and a feeling of breathlessness. Talich for example maintained a proper balance and distinction between the two movements taking half a minute longer with the latter. Shafer lacks Talich’s implacable quickening tread in the Inflammatus et accensus and his declamatory urgency in the final Quando corpus morietur. Nevertheless this was not one of Talich’s best-engineered discs – disconcertingly poor in fact. I’d hesitate to recommend it as a first choice; Kubelík, excellent, is on DG 423919-2GGA2 and Sawallisch is surprisingly good, even with some idiosyncratic tempos, on Supraphon 10 3561/2. Even more recommendable perhaps is Bêlohlávek on Chandos CHAN8985/6 and he adds Psalm CXLIX, as does Shafer (a good performance). Little in Shafer’s performance is ruinously bad, and much is thoughtful, considered and full of merit but I’d spend more on the Chandos for a comprehensively more successful performance.