Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Requiem, op. 89* (1890)
Symphony no. 9 in e, op. 95 – "From the New World" (1893)
Oksana Krovytska (soprano)*, Wendy Hoffman (mezzo-soprano)*, John Aler (tenor)*, Gustav Beláček (bass)*, Westminster Symphonic Choir*,

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra/Zdenek Macal
Recorded 12th, 18th-19th October 1999, New Jersey Performing Arts Centre, Newark, NJ
DELOS DE 3260 [2 CDs: 70:51+64:27]


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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 bad problem.

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.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Harry Downey

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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