The problem with this performance of the Requiem lies
with at least two of the soloists. Oksana Krovytska’s ungainly singing
with its heavy vibrato scuppers the opening of the "Graduale"
(example 1, CD 1, track 2 from the beginning), and that’s only ten minutes
into the piece. Her timbre sounds more like a mezzo than a soprano and
since her top notes are often strained I wonder if she shouldn’t have
a rethink and sing as a mezzo. I’ve put this as a first example so you
can decide whether it will worry you; if you think it won’t, I suggest
you try to sample the alternatives even so. Pilar Lorengar on the classic
Kertesz recording (Decca) at least sounds like a soprano, and she manages
a warmly affecting performance of this
movement. The problem is her vibrato. Maria Stader, on the equally classic
Ančerl recording (Deutsche Grammophon), sings the opening bars
with a virginal purity, without a trace of vibrato. Later, as the long
lyrical melody unfolds, she warms her
timbre with a touch of vibrato, but always beautifully controlled. I
found this extraordinarily moving. However, Stader’s voice was basically
a Mozart-sized one and, while she is unfailingly beautiful in the many
soft passages, in moments where Dvořák requires a Verdian
heft she is over-parted and her intonation suffers. At these points
Krovytska comes into her own.
Wendy Hoffman initially gave me a similarly unwieldy
impression to Krovytska but I did come to appreciate the sheer richness
of her voice. The drawback of having a real mezzo alongside a soprano
who sounds like a mezzo is that they are too little differentiated when
they sing together, something that does not happen on either of the
other two sets, where there is little to choose between Erszébet
Komlóssy (Kertesz) and Sieglinde Wagner (Ančerl), both of whom
manage their descent to the chest register in the Offertorio without
such an obvious break in tone.
With John Aler the new
recording produces an ace. Dvořák’s apparently easy melodic writing
contains some pretty tough ascents and Aler encompasses them all without
strain. Robert Ilosfalvy for Kertesz sings very well, but you do notice
the strain at times. Ernst Haefliger, for Ančerl, was a fine artist,
particularly appreciated in lieder. He gets
round the difficulties by introducing a fair dose of falsetto to his
high notes. It is a sweet sound and he is a true musician, but surely
Dvořák had something more ringingly Verdian in mind? I give the
opening of the “Recordare” quartet as my second example (example
2: CD1, track 6 from the beginning), beautifully launched by John Aler,
partly so that you can hear that there is some
good singing on offer in the set, partly to convince you that, if you
don’t know the Dvořák Requiem, you need to have a recording
of it, though possibly not this one, and partly to introduce the other
Frankly, the sort of sound
Gustav Beláček makes on his entry should not be heard on a professionally
made recording. He has some good notes in the zone between middle C
and the F below, but I don’t understand how he can call himself a bass
when there is no quality at all to the sound lower than that and, frankly,
when he goes below C he gurgles rather than sings. Kertesz and Ančerl
offer, respectively, Tom Krause, strong and authoritative, and
Kim Borg, warmer-voiced if less clean in style.
You may think it strange of me to start with the soloists
in a choral work, but their role is so vital that the best choral singing
in the world will not save a recording which has at least two millstones
round its neck. The Westminster Choir, if not the best in the world,
is nevertheless very fine, as is the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,
and Macal conducts with heartfelt dedication (hear the opening of Confutatis
maledictus, Example 3, CD 1, track 7).
Yet if you turn to István Kertesz you will hear another dimension, for
he conducts as a man with a mission. Dvořák’s choral music was
not well thought of outside Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and, following
a London Festival Hall performance which opened many ears, the
conductor’s burning desire to communicate his belief in the music brings
life and meaning to innumerable passages, especially in the dramatic
first part, which under Macal are left to speak for themselves. He is
also better at homing in on characteristically
Dvořákian orchestral timbres. However, whether because the effort
involved in producing such an overwhelming first part tired everyone,
or whether because studio time was running short, in the second part
he limits himself to piloting the performance along expertly,
and there is less evident difference between him and Macal. Furthermore,
he makes one serious miscalculation; he starts the "Quam olim Abrahae"
fugue at full volume, and with a lot of accents which are counter-productive.
He has already packed his punches and has no alternative but to blast
along noisily without convincing us that the music has anything to say
that it had not already said in the first few bars. Macal paces this
much better. Ančerl, though, finds more light and shade
still, rising from a deceptively innocent opening statement to real
electricity in the final pages.
Sensationalism and exaggeration
of detail were not part of Ančerl’s style, and his gently elegiac
approach to the opening movement may seem understated. However,
his typically lean, analytical textures do not preclude energy in the
big moments and the Czech Philharmonic of 1959 provided a warmth of
string tone and piquant wind timbres (hear the opening of the "Offertorium")
for which Kertesz had to work and which Macal does not attempt. Other
things being equal, this is the performance I would prefer.
Other things, though, have to include a consideration
of the recordings. The Delos encompasses the largest climaxes with ease
and provides a warm, rounded sound throughout.
The Decca is more immediate and has an exciting presence, but overloads
slightly at climaxes. I have to point out that my experience of the
Ančerl is limited to the mono LPs, which are warm in the soft passages
but pallid in the big moments. The CD transfer (in stereo) must
surely be better but you will need to sample, say, the "Dies Irae"
unless you are happy to get the best performance and not worry about
the sound. On the whole the Kertesz seems a safer recommendation. There
are also recordings by Sawallisch and Kosler.
The addition of a “New
World” symphony seems rather odd; anyone wanting to investigate the
Requiem will surely be a Dvořák fan already and would presumably
rather have some more of the composer’s rarer music than a symphony
he presumably already has. As a matter of fact he will acquire
a performance whose steady, warm-hearted fidelity to the composer puts
me in mind of the versions under Nikolai Malko, and that is high praise.
If Delos would care to issue this separately, maybe adding a tone poem
as a filler, this could be a prime recommendation.
see also review
by Harry Downey