Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
1. Biblical songs (1) [16:18]
2. Te Deum Op.103 (2) [20:46]
3. Violin Concerto in A minor Op.53 (3) [34:38]
4. Requiem Op.89 (4) [105:14]
5. Stabat Mater Op.58 (5) [86:12]
Lívia Ághová (2), Lucia Popp (4), Eva Urbanová (5) (sopranos), Eva Randová (1,4), Katerina Kachlíková (5) (mezzo-sopranos); Josef Protschka (4), ŝtefan Margita (5) (tenors); Ivan Kusnjer (2) (baritone); Peter Mikuláŝ (4,5) (bass); Ivan Zenaty (3) (violin)
Prague Symphony Orchestra; Prague Symphonic Chorus (4, 5); Prague Philharmonic Choir (2); Jiri Belohlávek (1-3), Petr Altrichter (4), Libor Peŝek (5)
rec. Alte Oper, Frankfurt, Germany, 1993
Region 0
Released separately as 102137, 102143 & 102145.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107512 [DVDs: 81:00 + 90:00 + 110:00]

Although recorded in concert as recently as 1993 this 3 DVD collection of Dvorák's major sacred works is best approached from the perspective of historical and/or archival document rather that library recommendation. This is not a comment on the quality of the music or performances all of which are at least good and some superb. The reason for the historical value is the performers. We have three of the (then) younger generation of Czech conductors conducting the fine and characterful pre-velvet revolution Prague Symphony Orchestra and associated choruses. In 1993 this meant that the orchestra still retained a distinctive Czech sound with rich strings, wonderfully characterful woodwind (I'm thinking especially here of the plangent oboe and perky clarinet) and incisive brass tempered by mellow horns. Add pretty much a who's-who of the finest Czech soloists of the day - including with enormous poignancy the irreplaceable Lucia Popp singing in the Requiem who died the same year these recordings were made - and you must wonder why I advise the archival status. The problem is these are video performances and therefore the visual element must contribute. Sadly, this is some of the dullest least inspiring videoing of a concert I have ever watched. If you ever wanted to put someone of classical music in concert show them this DVD - everything is so sombre and dour. Even the opening titles are extraordinarily dull - literally piece titles on a black background - it feels more like a wake than a concert. Camera angles and chosen close-ups are predictable and routine. The picture quality is average for early 90's TV broadcast lacking any kind of the clarity the best recordings now boast. This is further reflected in the 4:3 picture ratio - standard for the time but one that takes no account of the preponderance of wide-screen televisions today. Most damaging of all the sound is of similar broadcast quality running into problems of congestion and distortion at the big climaxes. Much of the time the sound is actually rather rich and warm but with that haze of distortion clouding the upper frequencies in loud passages - it rather reminds me of overloaded analogue cassette tape recordings. In silent pauses there is audible background noise that goes beyond hall ambience. And this is such a shame because much of the music-making is so fine.

To take the discs in numerical order; the first concert is under the direction of Jiri Belohlávek some years before he took over as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor. His conducting is a model of calm control without any of the hyperactive showboating which is becoming more popular amongst conductor's today. The programme opens with the five Biblical Songs Op.99 that Dvorák orchestrated from the original set of ten. The solo part is taken with dignified authority by Eva Randová. I absolutely adore the kind of rich dark tone she produces - some might feel it is a rather statuesque performance lacking the humanity that some find in this work but to my ear it is a compellingly concentrated interpretation. Another major black mark to Arthaus here; the box says there are subtitles - well I pressed every combination of buttons on my remote in every menu and no subtitles appear. Ironically the booklets for each of the DVDs is better than it often is - including a reasonable essay in English German and French and artist biographies.... but again NO texts. Even the individual songs are untitled on screen. I do understand that you do not always want subtitles or extra-musical information of any kind but to exploit the potential of DVD surely they should be there as an option. The Te Deum Op.103 is the most occasional of all the works in this set. Composed as a temporary replacement for his cantata The American Flag (the text was not yet complete) this was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. It is the kind of piece that choral societies roll out with gratitude because it is a relatively easy sing, at barely twenty minutes it does not outstay its welcome, and it requires just two soloists. Having written so negatively about the piece it is a pleasure to report it receives a thrillingly virile and impressive performance here. Gosh, the Prague Philharmonic Choir sing well. The blend across all the voices is superbly achieved and there is power and focus is all departments. Likewise the actual sound of the two soloists in their relatively brief contributions is absolutely ideal. Soprano Lívia Ághová has that silvery Popp-like brilliance to her voice - that's a big compliment from where I sit - and baritone Ivan Kusnjer balances weighty tone in the lower register with an appealing freedom in alt. Although this will never be one of my favourite pieces this is as impressive a performance as I have heard.

Which takes me to the work which the DVD cover describes as a 'bonus' - the relatively early Violin Concerto in A minor Op.53. People always mutter about "formal problems" with this work and certainly its position in the concerto pantheon has never been that high and within the composer's own canon it sits firmly in the shadow of the great Cello Concerto. But here we are treated to a simply stunning performance - easily the best I have ever heard. The soloist is Ivan Zenaty. His is a far from familiar name although in the last few years his disc of the Foerster concertos also with Belohlávek and a sonatas disc on Supraphon I enjoyed hugely proves he has had a long and distinguished career. His biography cites Milstein and Gertler as formative influences and indeed his playing does have the bravura intensity of both those remarkable players. What he brings out in this concerto is the dancing folk-element - I heard echoes of the Slavonic Dances quite clearly here which had quite passed me by before. The DVD shows Zenaty to be a wonderfully unfussy player too - he really does just stand and play. Yes I know what the academics mean about the structure of this work but surely at this stage of his career Dvorák was striving to give his music a national identity within the structure of traditional/classical musical form and as played here I'm convinced it works. Luckily the recording does not struggle to accommodate the dynamic range of the orchestra and instrumental soloist alone as much as it does with full chorus and singers so technically this is the best of the performances on the disc too.

The second DVD is devoted to the Requiem Op.89. Again this is work that has rather suffered in comparison beit to the same composer's Stabat Mater or other 19th Century Requiems by Brahms or of course Verdi. But context is everything; the work was Dvorák's third (lucrative) commission for the major British organisations - in this instance the 1891 Birmingham festival - and he was never intellectually or emotionally trying to write a work with the overt theatricality of the Verdi or the rigour of Brahms. Again, I am grateful to this performance to remind me what a fine work this is in its own right. The baton has passed to Petr Altrichter and he proves to be just as insightful and in control as Belohlávek. He 'works' his orchestra and chorus with more overt energy but that is consistent with the scale of the piece. Interestingly the four soloists are ranged behind the orchestra but in front of the chorus and in turn the chorus is split all the ladies to the left and the gentlemen to the right. Not that either detail of the staging would you know from listening alone since the soloists occupy a traditional 'front centre' position and the chorus are integrated into a single group. Technically this is a better recording and praise be there are subtitles at hand. As mentioned before the particular poignant delight is the presence of Lucia Popp as soprano soloist. I have heard her sing with more sheer tonal beauty but still she is in fine voice. In the 2nd movement Graduale you can appreciate the skill of the composer's lightly scored accompaniment and the exceptionally well-drilled ladies of the Prague Symphonic Choir who negotiate some tricky counterpoint with commendable ease. One of the early digital successes for Supraphon were recordings on CD with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and an international line-up of soloists of the two big sacred works. As a performance this matches up to those very well and if anything benefits from the extra intensity of live performance. Whilst on the topic of this being live I should mention that generally throughout the three discs the Frankfurt audience are reasonably well behaved although there is the inevitable bronchial moment and generally the microphones pick up quite a lot of auditorium noise. Personally, I never find this to be distracting given the concert hall location but there is enough of it audible to annoy those more sensitive to such things than I. Similarly, from a playing point of view there are passing moments - and they really are just moments - of ragged ensemble but nothing that detracts from my pleasure or admiration of the quality of these Czech players. Indeed just the reverse - I would say the orchestra have gone up in my estimation. I am fascinated by the discrepancy between the weight of sound the strings seem able to produce and how little effort they seem to make to produce that power. Part of the interest in a sequence of performances such as this is to see and hear how the performers mould themselves to the demands of the different works. A case in point is Eva Randová who adds an operatic power to her singing here that was (appropriately) missing from the Biblical songs. Indeed this is a very sensitive quartet of soloists whose voices and musical temperaments are perfectly in tune with the music. As mentioned before this is not as theatrical a work as the Verdi Requiem but that is not to say it lacks thrilling moments - the climax of the Tuba Mirum [chapter 5] is a hairs-on-the-back-of your-neck moment and if you risk some distortion by turning this passage up a little higher than normal the conviction and power of this performance blazes through - including the extraordinary touch in the scoring of using sleigh-bells to point the climax. As mentioned, Altrichter ‘physicalises’ much more than Belohlávek but I rather enjoy seeing that level of commitment from the podium. Listeners coming new to the work hoping for the great streams of memorably Bohemian melodic flow that mark out Dvorák's mature symphonies will be disappointed but instead there is a remarkably concentrated musical argument that is superbly constructed to guide you to the spiritual meaning of the mass proper. Much as I love the Verdi I occasionally forget it is first and foremost a Requiem, something that does not happen here. That impression is aided here time and again by the superbly controlled expressive singing of the chorus. I was particularly impressed by their dynamic range and even tonal warmth across the entire range of both dynamic and pitch. Listen to their beautifully graded Amens at the close of the Lacrimosa [chapter 9] or the sheer exultant energy in the fugal passages of the Offertorium or Hostias movements to know that this is a very fine choir indeed. As an aside - these choruses have a Handelian contrapuntal pomp that made me wonder how much Dvorák was shamelessly appealing to his English Victorian middle-class audience! Dvorák's ear for instrumental colour is everywhere in evidence - the prominent parts for the bass clarinet and cor anglais adding a sombre darkness to many of the more reflective passages. The recording gives them a rather synthetic prominence but it is a delight to hear them played so characterfully. It is typical of these recordings that solo instrumental lines are unduly spotlit. It diminishes any concert-hall illusion and does give the stereo sound-stage a rather flat left to right split with no real impression of front to back depth. A mention here too for the two male soloists; tenor Josef Protschka and bass Peter Mikuláŝ. Protschka has just the right edge of steel in his voice while Mikuláŝ possesses the kind of resonant bass that countries in the old Eastern bloc seemed able to produce at the drop of a hat. One of the fascinating aspects of Dvorák's compositional choices is that he uses his soloists far more often a kind of semi-chorus, yes of course there are solo lines and passages but the solos/duets are far less defined than in other settings - he does not choose to highlight the individual over the group - this is a collective act of worship and remembrance. It is worth remembering what a big work this is too - longer (the performance here runs to just shy of 110 minutes) by some distance than the nominally big Requiems of Verdi or Brahms. Great credit therefore to Petr Altrichter and all the performers that they not only sustain their concentration throughout but also create a sense of cumulative prayerful intensity that leads inexorably to the final Agnus Dei [chapter 14] which happens also to be the single longest movement in the work. This movement is a movingly sombre work - with the steady tread of a heavy-hearted if not funereal march. The ladies of the choir provide an occasional shaft of light with Popp leading the great cries of 'Lux Aeterna' which is the last great outburst in the work from that point gently receding into a hushed eternity. Quite possibly this is the least appreciated of Dvorák's true masterpieces and the performance here certainly does it great justice. The applause of the Frankfurt audience is extended but rarely rises above the dutiful with plenty of the public - this always infuriates me - hurrying away after the most cursory of claps.

The third disc contains the more overtly populist Stabat Mater under the baton of Libor Peŝek. At the time of this recording he was the best known internationally of the three conductors in that he was in the middle of his stint as principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra - indeed he was followed in that post in 1997 by Altrichter. The well written liner booklet makes the point that this relatively early work - 1877 when the composer was just twenty six was the piece that launched his international career. A performance at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1883 created a sensation. Interestingly it was not written as a commission but instead sprang from the appalling multiple tragedies of losing three of his children early in their lives. Dvorák's genius was to turn such dark despair into a work of art which centred on the grieving mother of Christ at the foot of the cross. Although the words of the Stabat Mater had been set many composers previously this was the biggest and most overtly dramatic setting to date. This is clear from the gathering clouds of the opening very extended movement Stabat Mater dolorosa. Peŝek brings his soloists back to a more traditional position beside the conductor's podium with the ladies to the left and the men to the right. Peŝek himself conducts in a sternly sombre fashion with a complete absence of histrionics. The presentation of the disc is identical to the other two - starkly minimal titles, mediocre quality visuals and adequate but far from demonstration quality sound. The sub-title option does work on this disc. Curiously the choir here do not sound quite as tightly disciplined as in the Requiem and again the recording struggles to cope with them singing at full volume and much inner orchestral detail is lost along the way. Peŝek prefers a rather plain approach which while avoiding the danger of sentimentalising the work does rather underplay the inherent drama of it too. Of the soloists only the bass Peter Mikuláŝ is the same as in the Requiem. Tenor ŝtefan Margita makes an immediate and positive impression with an appealingly free Italianate ring to his tone. Likewise soprano Eva Urbanová sings her exposed first entry with beautiful poise and refined control. Mezzo-soprano Katerina Kachlíková is the least appealing of all the soloists on display here anticipating the ends of phrases and unsettling the ensemble. In comparison to the imposing Randová she seems rather lightweight. The writer of the liner notes makes the very valid point that the entire piece is in effect a sequence of meditations on the passion of Christ ending with an ecstatic vision of the resurrection. There is a danger therefore of a degree of sameness through the bulk of the work. I am not sure Peŝek quite manages to avoid this trap well though his forces perform for him. This is because he chooses to maintain steady basic pulses throughout each movement avoiding impulsive extremes. Its a deliberately anti-dramatic choice that the rather bronchial audience and less than atmospheric recording rather undermines with any atmosphere he creates shattered by an injudicious cough or technical blip. Peŝek 's conducting style is relatively detached too and whenever the cameras catch him he is a picture of unemotional calculation. Which makes the ensemble slips all the more surprising. All I can imagine is that there was less time to prepare or the orchestra were not as engaged by the conductor as on the other DVDs. Certainly part of the fascination of this set is exactly those kind of comparisons. As a performance regardless of the medium I would not put this interpretation ahead of the aforementioned Sawallisch or, perhaps more surprisingly, the rather fine and fervent version from the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under Zdenek Koŝler that turns up in various guises on Brilliant Classics. Of course there are highlights - the soprano/tenor duet Fac, ut portem Christi mortem sounds radiantly beautiful in the hands of such fine singers as here and Peŝek allows the tempo to flow effectively. In such company the following Inflammatus et accensus sung by Katerina Kachlíková disappoints. She keeps her head so resolutely in the score that communication with the audience is minimised - she fails to 'sell' the music at all. Worse still, she does not have the range for the lowest notes of her part and they all but disappear. Certainly she sounds over-parted, too cautious both musically and emotionally to carry the role, I did wonder if she was a late substitute in the role such is her ill-ease.

Collectors familiar with the Fedoseyev/Moscow Radio Symphony Tchaikovsky cycle also from the Alte Oper will know what to expect here technically and visually. Personally I find these Dvorák performances to be infinitely more involving than those rather routine and efficient Tchaikovsky discs. These discs can be bought separately - I am not sure if there is a price benefit from buying them together. The stand-out performances are the Violin Concerto and the Requiem - both are excellent. The rest of the disc 1 is of a lower order musically but receives fine performances. Only the Stabat Mater disappoints by not being as thrilling as I had expected it to be simply because Peŝek is not at his visionary best. Because of the technical shortcomings of these DVDs at the full price they are offered for I find it hard to recommend this set very highly. Certainly, do not buy it to test out your new HD 50 inch television and surround sound system, but do consider it if you want to witness much music-making of the highest order from - in effect - a different era. As often happens when watching or listening to a sequence of recordings the ear and eye accommodates shortcomings that initially infuriate. So it was with this set; the glory of the music allied to the brilliance of some of the performances resulting in an uplifting experience reinforcing once again the genius of this most humane of composers.

Nick Barnard

An uplifting experience.