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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Requiem, Op. 89 (1890) [94:59]
Biblical Songs, Op. 99 – excerpts* (1894) [19:08]
Maria Stader (soprano); Sieglinde Wagner (contralto); Ernst Haefliger (tenor); Kim Borg (bass)
Czech Chorus, Prague
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl
*Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Jörg Demus (piano)
rec., Rudolfinum, Prague, January, February 1959; *Studio Lankwitz, Berlin, April 1960. ADD

Dvořák’s Requiem, 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.
Dvořák 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.
As 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.
The 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.
There’s 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 level.
Ančerl 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.
I’ve 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.
Presiding 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.
The 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.
I 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.

John Quinn





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