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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Stabat Mater Op. 58 (1876 version) [60:00]
Alexandra Coku (soprano); Renata Pokupic (alto); Pavol Breslik (tenor); Markus Butter (bass); Brigitte Engerer (piano); Accentus/Laurence Equilbey
rec. July 2007, Cité de la musique, Paris
text and translations included
NAĎVE V5091 [60:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The normally performed version of Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater” dates from late 1877. This disc however suggests that this does not represent his original intentions when he started the work in early 1876. That followed the death of his daughter Josefa in September of the preceding year and consisted of only seven movements, scored for soloists, choir and piano. According to the notes to this disc, the detailed nature of the piano part appears to imply that at that time he had no intention of producing an orchestral version. The version with which we are more familiar was written in the autumn of 1877 following the deaths of his other two children. It has not only an orchestral accompaniment but three further movements.
Thus the present recording offers a chance to assess what can be discovered of the composer’s first thoughts and to compare them with the later version. Inevitably to anyone familiar with the latter for much of the time it sounds like a choral rehearsal without orchestra, and evaluation is made more difficult as the piano is so favoured by the recording balance that at times one feels more like the page turner to the pianist than a listener in the body of a concert hall. However even putting these considerations aside, it is hard to regard the piano part as being in any way idiomatic. Much of it sounds more like a somewhat literal transcription of an orchestral work, including in the first movement whole bars of tremolando chords.
Presumably the edition is the work of Miroslav Srnka who contributes an interesting article to the booklet. I remain unclear however as to the strength of his evidence that the composer did not originally envisage orchestrating the work. Srnka refers to “the meticulous state of completion and the extreme precision of the writing, even down to dynamic and articulation marks” as evidence that it was intended to be performed with piano, but he goes back on this later when he refers to the deficiencies of the score in terms of detailed tempo markings and apparently incomprehensible dynamic markings. I hope that his version will be made more widely available in due course in print for study and performance, but for the present one may perhaps be forgiven for some doubts as to whether this really is what the composer really hoped for originally in terms of eventual performance. There are certainly some interesting differences in detail between what we hear on this disc and the later version, including a lengthy passage in the last movement that was later cut. Nonetheless I am by no means convinced that this so-called 1876 version can be regarded as more than a very interesting curiosity.
My view may however be coloured by a performance which might be described generously as intimate, or more crudely as weak. The piano-heavy balance does not help, although this does help the listener to enjoy Brigitte Engerer’s performance, perhaps the most satisfactory part of the whole. Perhaps I am too used to the more full-blooded orchestral version, but the relatively small choir and the apparently small-voiced soloists do seem to reduce the emotional power of the work. I would not want to put anyone off buying this disc if they have a particular interest in the composer and his compositional methods, but others should perhaps be a little more wary. I would certainly not recommend it to anyone lacking a recording of the final version of the work.
John Sheppard


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