Here is a rare opportunity
to hear one of Dvořák's lesser known treasures. Written between
May and November 1884, the composer held the work in some
esteem. Its premiere on August 27th, 1885 in Birmingham, England, was
a success. Although it is not uniformly inspired, a committed performance
such as the one under consideration can certainly prove the piece to
be moving; the fact that this is a live account certainly helps this
to be a truly involving listening experience.
The story certainly has a macabre aspect. It centres
on a girl whose dead lover takes her towards death, salvation only coming
in the shape of the girl's prayers to the Virgin Mary.
There are three solo protagonists: the girl (soprano);
the Lover/Spectre (tenor); and a Narrator (bass-baritone), who introduces
and comments on the action in conjunction with the chorus.
On this performance the dramatic impetus is maintained
by some excellent solo work and careful, considered pacing from the
conductor. At around 1 hour 20 minutes' duration, the piece is not too
long for its material, and the attention barely wavers throughout.
The Prague Symphony Orchestra are, of course, on home
ground here. The orchestral introduction reminds the listener of the
orchestra's principal strengths. Silky strings, authentically Czech
woodwind (listen to the oboes!) are all there as the dark undercurrents
to the ominous harmonies are realised.
The chorus throughout realises its commentaries well,
but it is, in the final analysis, the soloists that make the piece.
Eva Urbanová is probably the best known of the
soloists. Her first entry indicates a lightish voice, but one fully
up to the dramatic declamation required. She is heartfelt in her plea
for the return of her beloved (QUOTE 1), as she is also in the closing
moments of the piece (No. 17, 'Maria Panno'). She, rightly, very much
sounds like a young woman.
Ludovít Ludha is an ardent and convincing lover.
His gentle entreaties to his beloved to trust him are persuasive; Urbanová's
answer is most tender (QUOTE 2). Ivan Kusnjer as the Narrator carries
the requisite authority for the role: try his description of the Spectre's
leading the way in the journey (QUOTE 3).
A very worthwhile release. A pity that an enthusiastic
cry from the audience of 'bravo' could not be edited out, as it detracts
from the atmosphere created by the beauty of the closing pages.