like so much of his choral music, is performed relatively
infrequently outside the Czech Republic so I can’t be the
only collector who has come to the work through recordings.
Indeed, I can’t readily recall hearing a live performance.
My first encounter was on LP in the shape of the 1968 Kingsway
Hall recording made by István Kertész for Decca. That eventually
became my first CD version of the work (448 089-2) and it
remains a very fine and faithful reading of the score. However,
when I first acquired this Ančerl recording a couple
of years ago in its previous CD incarnation (453 073-2) I
realised that the great Czech conductor added another dimension
to my appreciation of this piece. I should say straight away
that an A/B comparison through headphones of the two pressings
of this Ančerl recording revealed no significant differences
in sound quality. There’s perhaps a tiny degree of background
hiss on the earlier re-mastering but to all intents and purposes
I could detect no difference. In any event the original recording
was excellent and it wears its forty-seven years very lightly.
composed his Requiem in 1890. Like The Spectre’s
Bride (Birmingham, 1885) and St. Ludmilla (Leeds,
1886), it was composed for an English audience. The first
performance was given at the Birmingham Festival of 1891.
As John Warrack points out in his good liner-note it is not
really a liturgical piece but more an oratorio. Though it
has many impressive passages it can’t be denied that there
are some stretches where the fires of inspiration burn a
little less brightly. For instance, I feel that Dvořák
loses his way a bit in the ‘Quid sum miser’ section of the ‘Dies
Irae’. It needs an exceptional performance of great conviction
to do the work full justice, Happily, that’s exactly what
it gets here.
I said, the Kertész recording is a fine achievement but it’s
evident right from the start that Ančerl brings an even
greater degree of intensity and belief in the work. This
he clearly transmits to his performers. The Czech choir,
which sounds to be a slightly larger body than the LSO Chorus,
who sing very well for Kertész, begins the work with appropriately
hushed but focused singing. Then at ‘Te decet hymnus’ we
get the first blaze of fervent choral sound and it’s thrilling.
As regards the chorus this opening movement is something
of a microcosm of the whole performance for consistently
the Czech choir is equally taut and impressive whether in
loud or soft music.
choir really punches its weight at the start of the ‘Dies
Irae’ and the Czech Philharmonic adds a splendid touch of
pungency. It’s not in Dvořák’s nature to storm the heavens
at the ‘Tuba mirum’ in the manner of Berlioz or Verdi – indeed,
with him it’s more of a moment of still suspense rather than
of blazing or terrifying grandeur. In fact the ‘Tuba mirum’ is
actually sung by the contralto soloist, with urgent wind
decorations in the background. This is a good point to mention
that one of the delights of this score is the prominent woodwind
parts, which are superbly played by the Czech orchestra.
more splendidly committed choral singing in the ‘Confutatis’ – the
ringing tenors caught my ear – whether the choir is called
upon to sing full out or, as at ‘Voca me’ in a more subdued
fashion. I’ve singled out a few particularly striking passages
but the whole choral contribution is on a very distinguished
and Dvořák are served just as well by the solo quartet.
Once again, the Decca quartet does a fine job but their rivals
on this set just seem to find that little bit extra. Kim
Borg, for example, is commanding at ‘Mors stupebit’ after
which Ernst Haefliger’s plangent tone is just right for ‘Liber
scriptus’ and the whole solo team sings ardently at ‘Rex
tremendae’, superbly supported by the choir. Maria Stader
makes a mark every time she sings and Sieglinde Wagner is
no less impressive. One detail that I relished particularly
comes in the ‘Pie Jesu’. This begins with the choir but the
soloists enter at 3:15. For this passage it sounds as if
they’ve been recorded at a distance. There’s a halo of resonance
around the voices and the distancing is most effective. This
effect is not attempted on the Decca recording, where the
soloists are placed conventionally throughout the work, which
in itself is fine.
already alluded to the contribution of the Czech Philharmonic.
The orchestra is in tremendous form. The playing is marvellously
responsive and eloquent. The strings have just the right
amount of weight and body. The brass, horns and trumpets
especially, have that unique Slavic timbre, nowadays largely
gone, which sounds wonderful here. As I’ve indicated already
the woodwind section is superb. There’s a marvellous pungency
to their playing at several crucial points.
over all is Karel Ančerl. He has the full measure of
the score and he conveys its sweep with rare conviction.
It’s evident that he believes wholeheartedly in the music
and he’s equally successful both in the sections where drama
and vivid colour are required and in those many more passages
where the composer’s lyrical vein is to the fore. I’d rate
this as one of his finest achievements on record.
coupling of six of Dvořák’s ten Biblical Songs has been
retained. They’re sung in German and the performance is all
you’d expect from Fischer-Dieskau: authoritative, committed
and commanding. He’s proudly rhetorical in the first of the
set, ‘Rings um den Herrn sind Wolken und Dunkel’. Here he’s
very much the fiery Old Testament prophet, declaiming the
text powerfully and emphatically. He adopts a similar style
for the tenth song, ‘Singet ein neues Lied’, but some may
agree with me that he’s a bit too emphatic in this song,
rather than joyful. For me he comes into his own especially
in the fourth song, ‘Gott ist mein Hirte’, a version of Psalm
23. Fischer-Dieskau is, frankly, hypnotic here, spinning
a superb line. He’s equally successful in the seventh song, ‘An
den Wassern zu Babylon sassen wir’. I agree with John Warrack’s
verdict that this setting of words from Psalm 137 is perhaps
the finest of all the set. In this performance of it every
word, every note, is precisely weighted and delivered with
the utmost care and skill, producing a memorable reading.
It’s a pity that we are not given the full set of ten songs
but what we do have makes an fine and appropriate complement
to the Requiem.
mean no disrespect to Fischer-Dieskau when I say that the Requiem will
be the main attraction to purchasers, for it is by far the
more substantial offering. And in this instance it’s right
that this should be the case. Despite the undoubted merits
of the Kertész set this Ančerl version is something
rather special and it constitutes a clear first choice. In
recent years I rather think that the editors of the Penguin
Guide to Compact Discs have become just a little too
ready to award rosettes to recordings but this is one that
most certainly merits the accolade.