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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Stabat Mater Op. 58 (1876-77)
Eva Urbanová (soprano); Kateřina Kachlikov (mezzo); Štefan Margita (tenor); Peter Mikuláš (bass)
Prague Symphonic Choir
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Libor Pešek
rec. Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 1993
PCM Stereo; 4:3 Region Code 0; DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Experience Classicsonline

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is one of the most beautiful choral works ever written. Vaclav Neumann’s performance on DVD (Arthaus 102019) convinced me of this beyond any reasonable doubt – his version sits on an equal plane with (on record) Kubelík, Smetáček and Talich.

Here, there are no scene-setting camera pannings; rather, the soloists and conductor enter and all gets underway with no real preliminaries. Musically, the opening itself does not have the sense of devotion that Neumann instils. Neither does the chorus establish the same sense of loss in its handling of the lachrymose descending lines that permeate this first movement, “Stabat Mater dolorosa”. Camera angles include impressive views of the chorus (ladies in a lovely purple, gents in traditional concert dress) and dissolves from one view to another. 

Whereas in this piece Neumann projected a sense of the vast, Pešek seems not to look so far ahead, resulting in the first entrance of the tenor and the subsequent paragraphs sounding rather directionless and out-of-place; neither accusation could ever be levelled at Neumann. Pešek’s sense of curbed-in drama seems equally under-developed, although his technique cannot be faulted - his beat is eloquent and clear. A particular casualty of this lack of internal fire is the ninth movement, “Inflammatus et accensus”, where the orchestral contribution is merely routine. Hear – and watch – how Neumann elevates archetypal musical gestures to higher planes here. 

The soprano Eva Randová enters as a beam of light, her pure voice a pleasure to listen to. Mikulaš’s bass is initially rather heavy, but the quartet of soloists when they sing together actually gels into a coherent group. Indeed, the quartet comes into its own in the quartet, “Quis et homo, qui non fleret”. It does rather appear that Kachliková is happiest when in ensemble. When she has a solo, there is not quite enough projection or personality - crucially, in the “Inflammatus”. In contrast, the bass, Mikulaš, thrives in his big solo, the fifth movement, “Fac, ut ardeat cor meum”, as does the tenor, Štefan Margita, in the seventh movement, “Fac me vere tecum elere”. Margita has a rather light voice which is not inappropriate in the earlier parts of the movement. He struggles to be heard later on, and I suspect this is not a fault of the recording balance. 

The chorus is clearly well trained although I can find all sorts of credits for all sorts of people, including the two “floral decorators”, I cannot find the name of the chorus-master. The choral movement, “Virgo virginum praeclara” is a model of choral good behaviour. The choir’s tone is rich yet not too heavy, and this movement even approaches some sort of radiance. 

Interesting to note that Pešek’s teachers include both Neumann and Smetáček, yet Pešek cannot rise to either’s heights. The true light of this account is Urbanová, nowhere as touching as in “Fac, ut portem Christi mortem”, where she inspires Margita to give his best in response to her caressing phrases. Yet one soloist is not enough to raise this performance to the heights this Stabat Mater requires it to scale. 

Neither text nor translation is included, unfortunately, although subtitles (infrequent) with a choice of translated languages are included. The original Latin is not an option here, either. 

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is what might be termed a fragile masterpiece. It can disintegrate in the wrong hands, and lose its majesty. Such is the case here, I fear. Go to the Neumann for a sense of the true worth of this piece.

Colin Clarke


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