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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Saint Ludmila - oratorio for soli, chorus and orchestra, Op. 71 (1886) [113:53]
libretto by Jaroslav Vrchlický
Eva Urbanová - Ludmila (soprano)
Bernarda Fink - Svatava (mezzo)
Stanislav Matis - Bořivoj (tenor)

Aleš Briscein - Grolník (ten)
Peter Mikuláš - Svatý Ivan (bass)
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Jaroslav Brych
Bambini di Praga/Bohumil Kulínský
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek
rec. live, Prague Spring concert, 15-16 May 2004, Smetana Hall, Prague. Hybrid SACDs. DSD
ARCO DIVA UP 0078-2 232 [50:45 + 63.08]

Dvořák’s oratorio St Ludmila resulted from his continuing association with England, and with the Leeds Festival in particular. He made no fewer than eight trips to England, and the results were important artistically as well as professionally. For example, his ability to respond to the country’s burgeoning choral tradition led him to compose a magnificent Requiem for Birmingham, where the authorities also suggested that for their 1890 event he might compose a setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius. He thought carefully about doing so, and then decided against it, which from the point of view of posterity was just as well.

St Ludmila is a work of Dvořák’s maturity, and the most likely reason for its failure to establish a regular repertory position is its size and scale. The performing time is some two hours, and the resources required are large and complex. Neither of these considerations represents an impossibility, but on the other hand, neither exactly helps when it comes to making performances possible.

This recording is based on live performances given at the Prague Spring Festival of 2004. The recorded balance is admirable, so too the sensitivity of the dynamic range and the well executed focus between solo and ensemble. There might be room for more intensity in the climactic moments, but it is difficult to tell whether this impression relates to the recorded sound or to the performance itself. By using a pair of performances, the unwelcome effects of any editing problems or damaging audience contributions have been controlled. The presentation is of a particularly high standard, with multi-lingual texts and translations, detailed access points and sound documentation.

The performance stands up well, though the work is likely to remain the preserve of Czech festivals. The demands of the language and the lack of a readily available translation, along with the extended scope and scale, encourage this view. In the light of all this Bĕlohlávek’s devoted interpretation serves Dvořák’s cause well. As such it becomes an important recommendation for those wanting to extend their knowledge of the composer’s nature and achievement. While it is possible to question a few details of this recording such as the trend towards under-statement rather than drama, there is no doubt whatever that this music deserves a wide currency, and on an international scale.

Terry Barfoot



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