Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Requiem in B flat minor, Op. 89 (1890) [93.22]
Ilse Eerens (soprano); Bernarda Fink (mezzo); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Nathan Berg (bass); Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 2014, deSingel, Antwerp, Belgium
Full Latin texts with English translations provided
PHI LPH016 [50.49 + 42.33]

After a few years of relative scarcity of Dvořák sacred works I reported a marvellous performance of the Dvořák Stabat mater in April at the Herkulessaal, Munich. It was conducted by Mariss Jansons with Erin Wall (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo), Christian Elsner (tenor), Liang Li (bass), Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Now arrives this valuable PHI disc of the Requiem with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic under Philippe Herreweghe.

In the second half of the 1870s Dvořák’s music catered to Austro-German taste and the Stabat mater (1876/77) was particularly well received (review ~ review). Extremely popular in England too, Dvořák had been learning English and visited the country on nine occasions. The Stabat mater — a work I consider to be his finest sacred score — was much praised in England together with his cantata The Spectre’s Bride (review ~ review). Dvořák also considered an oratorio based on the John Henry Newman poem The Dream of Gerontius for the Birmingham Festival in England but in 1890 opted for a Requiem. This, his Op. 89, became a pillar of the sacred choral repertoire.

The Requiem is in thirteen sections and is divided into two parts. It gives curiously little opportunity for solo display. In the booklet notes the author writes that “the Requiem does not bear the scars of any personal ” bereavement although Dvořák had lost three of his children between 1875 and 1877. Their deaths would surely have had a profound effect upon him. It has been put forward that the Requiem is an oratorio for concert performance not a liturgical work - a view which I don’t hold. With its Latin text it is as much a Requiem Mass for the dead as is Verdi’s famous Requiem. Both have the ability to communicate a strong sense of sacred awe whether performed inside or outside a church setting.

When I have seen Philippe Herreweghe conduct I have always been left with the memory of his sensitive musicianship. The impression is no different here in the Requiem. Everything is wonderfully managed under Herreweghe who lets the music unfold naturally rather than driving a more starkly dramatic approach in the manner of Karel Ančerl on Deutsche Grammophon. The soloists, choral and orchestral forces offer a splendid yet unaffected approach. The pliable voices of the soloists are agreeably contrasted and eminently secure. They sing together with an unerring gravitas which is heard to splendid effect in the Recordare - a prayer to Christ for clemency. Dedicated and impeccably prepared Collegium Vocale Gent cannot be faulted. They are adept at communicating accuracy whilst maintaining a seemingly deeply felt sense of reverence. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays with lyrical warmth and produces satisfyingly glowing climaxes without ever being in fear of overpowering the vocalists. The interesting and extremely informative booklet essay by Tom Janssens (translated by Winnie Smith) is a model of its sort. Gratifyingly I can report that PHI has included full Latin texts with English translations in the booklet. The engineers excel with warm, clear sound that is pleasingly balanced.

This account of the Requiem has the quality to stand alongside the evergreen recording from Karel Ančerl with soloists Stadler, Wagner, Haefliger and Borg, Czech Chorus, Prague and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra recorded in 1959 at the Rudolfinum, Prague on Deutsche Grammophon (review review).

Not just an early-music specialist, Philippe Herreweghe conducts with a persuasive and moving sense of sacred expression in this rewarding Dvořák Requiem.

Michael Cookson

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