Dvořák composed his setting of the lengthy medieval Latin prayer, Stabat Mater, during what was a personally traumatic period in his life. As Anthony Burton relates in his notes, he began work on it in early 1876 just a few months following the death of his daughter two days after she was born. By the time he completed the work towards the end of the following year he and his wife had suffered the loss not only of another infant daughter but also of their three year-old son. So Dvořák was making a setting of a prayer addressed to the bereaved mother of Christ at a time when he himself was burdened by personal bereavement. Eventually the Stabat Mater was to be the work by which Dvořák’s reputation in Britain was made: first performed in London in 1883, it was conducted there to great acclaim by the composer himself in 1884 during the first of his visits to Britain.
The first thing that struck me when I received this CD for review was the playing time, which seemed to me to be uncommonly swift. Sure enough, a glance at the versions on my shelves confirmed that all of these play for significantly longer, spilling over onto a second disc. The live version by Giuseppe Sinopoli, recorded in 2000, takes 87:34. Helmuth Rilling’s 1995 version, which I reviewed as part of a boxed set, plays for an almost identical 87:27. Among older versions Kubelik’s DG recording from 1976 runs for 81:53 while the historic 1952 Supraphon account conducted by the great Vaclav Talich takes 85:18.
As you might expect from those bald timing statistics, Järvi is quite often markedly quicker than other conductors. For example, he despatches the first of the work’s ten movements – the longest section – in just 14:00. The four conductors mentioned above take between 18:29 (Kubelik) and 21:18 (Talich). The metronome marking in my vocal score at the start of this movement is minim = 76. Järvi is appreciably swifter: I reckon his basic tempo is about 86. Sinopoli is significantly slower than the marked speed; initially Kubelik is very close to it though he slows up when the choir comes in. Actually, I have some sympathy with Järvi. I suspect he’s seeking to inject flow and impetus into a movement in which, not for the last time in this work, Dvořák is arguably prone to excessive repetition of his material. Järvi may also have in mind that the Andante marking is qualified by the words con moto. However, whilst admiring the intentions Kubelik imparts more weight and thrust into the music without dragging it out excessively. Overall I find Järvi’s urgency tips over into undue haste.
In the second movement, ‘Quis est homo’, Järvi is again appreciably swifter than either Kubelik or Sinopoli but he’s not far off the metronome marking – his rivals are quite a bit slower than what the composer apparently wanted and sound somewhat funereal as a result. Järvi is well served by his solo quartet here and I find his reading convincing.
I’m much less taken with his way with the third section, ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’. The selected speed is faster than marked and the result is that the music sounds almost sprightly. Kubelik, by contrast, is almost spot on the metronome marking and he imparts a weary tread to the music, which is much more satisfactory.
I’m not going to discuss each movement in turn but I must comment on two instances where I feel that excessive haste on Järvi’s part fatally undermines the music. One is the sixth movement, ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’. Here Järvi selects a speed that is significantly in excess of the metronome marking and though the music flows it does so in such a way as to make the setting sound superficial. Kubelik is much closer to the metronome marking and he finds just the right beseeching quality. All three conductors have good tenors at their disposal but here, as elsewhere, it’s Johan Botha, Sinopoli’s tenor, who takes the palm.
I could probably live with Järvi’s pacing of the sixth movement but I’m afraid I part company with him completely when it comes to the penultimate movement, ‘Inflammatus et accensus’, which is a solo for the mezzo. Järvi takes the music at a speed which is ludicrously in excess of the metronome marking – I reckon his speed is crotchet = 104 against a marking of 54. This fast pacing means that when compared to Kubelik and Sinopoli the outer sections of this movement have a very different – and inappropriate – character. In the middle section Järvi slows down, even though this is not marked in the vocal score. His rivals also ease the tempo but by nothing like as much. Even the rich-toned singing of Dagmar Pecková can’t redeem this movement from failure.
I’m sorry to labour the point about tempi but I think it goes to the heart of Järvi’s conception of the work. I’ve mentioned four other CD versions of this work, simply because I own copies of them, all of which exceed 80 minutes in length and spill over onto a second CD. To the best of my knowledge, the majority of other recordings also take up more than one disc, implying a playing time of at least 80 minutes. All of this suggests that Järvi is somewhat out of step and though I can appreciate a desire not to linger unnecessarily and to inject urgency I have a nagging feeling that he hasn’t penetrated to the heart of the work. There are many good things about the performance: I do like some of Järvi’s fleet tempi and the final movement, ‘Quando corpus morietur’ is full-throated and fervent. Furthermore, he has a good team of soloists and the LPO Choir and Orchestra are both on excellent form. If I’d experienced this performance live in the concert hall I would probably have enjoyed it very much. However, its appearance on disc means that one must judge it against other recordings as to its suitability for repeated listening. For all its merits, I would certainly prefer Kubelik’s recording and, perhaps, the more operatic one by Sinopoli to this live Järvi performance.
The documentation and recorded sound are good. Though this is a live performance the audience is not intrusive and there is no applause after the quiet ending.
The concert was reviewed by Colin Clarke for Seen and Heard. You can read his review here.