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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Sacred Works and Cantatas

rec. 1963-97, Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU 4187-2 [8 CDs: 537.02]

“My father’s God was not the God of Vengeance but the Creator, who sanctifies the journey through the ‘valley of death’ through his infinite love.” Otakar Dvořák

This eight 8 CD Supraphon collection of Dvořák’s Sacred Works and Cantatas presents nearly nine hours of music recorded over a thirty-four year period mainly in the impressive setting of the Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum.

Here Dvořák’s works with Latin sacred texts comprise the Stabat Mater, Te Deum, Mass in D major, Requiem and smaller pieces: Ave maris stella, Ave Maria, O sanctissima and Hymnus ad laudes. Sacred music to Czech texts is also there to be heard: Psalm 149, Oratorio: Saint Ludmila, Ten Biblical Songs for piano accompaniment and also the first five songs that Dvořák orchestrated. To Czech texts the secular works are the Patriotic Hymn, The Heirs of the White Mountain and the Dramatic Cantata, The Spectre’s Bride. Not included are several sets of part-songs, the cantata The American Flag and the works for chorus and orchestra: Hymn of the Czech Peasants and Festival Song.

Throughout, Supraphon has employed two excellent orchestras: the Prague Symphony and the Czech Philharmonic, and a single chorus: the renowned Prague Philharmonic Choir. The roster of conductors Jiří Belohlávek, Václav Smetáček, Václav Neumann and Zdeněk Košler are all Czech-born and they are joined by the distinguished Bavarian conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch.

With regard to the Czech language texts as one might imagine native Czech speakers such as Eva Urbanová and Dalibor Jedlička are used. For the Latin works there is a mix of nationalities with Czech speakers combining with several notable names including German-born Brigitte Fassbaender, American Thomas Moser and Italian Gianni Maffeo.

Alongside his operas and symphonies Dvořák wrote choral works both sacred and secular steadily throughout his composing career. These range from The Heirs of the White Mountain, Op. 30 in 1872 to the Festival Song, Op. 113 from 1900. At one time many of these works were particularly celebrated in England especially the secular scores but they became unfashionable and have fallen out of the repertoire.

The first work Dvořák wrote for chorus and orchestra was The Heirs of the White Mountain (1872) which he revised in 1880 and 1884. Lasting approaching 19 minutes this is a robust score of patriotic character matching the Nationalistic fervour amongst the Czech people. It depicts the torment in Bohemia that followed the dreadful Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. A new work to me, I was struck by the gloriously scored orchestral prelude in a work full of joyful often dramatic writing with particularly attractive woodwind contributions. Recorded in 1973, Zdeněk Košler conducts the securely unified Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Symphony Orchestra. There's an abundance of Czech passion and patriotism here together with a weightily stirring conclusion.

Saint Ludmila, an epic patriotic oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, is the most substantial work and the longest on the set, lasting 137 minutes and taking up CDs 5 and 6. It was written in 1886 to a text by Jaroslav Vrchlický and intended for the Leeds Music Festival, England. It concerns the conversion of Ludmila and her future spouse Prince Borivoj to Christianity and the victory of Christianity over Paganism in the Czech lands. Although a rarity these days, coincidentally this season the Hallé under its music director Sir Mark Elder has programmed a Dvořák survey that features a revival of Saint Ludmila in May 2016 to be performed in a newly commissioned English translation by David Pountney.

Recorded in 1963, Václav Smetáček selected his quintet of soloists well. They performing with character and a deep commitment marked by dramatic conviction. Eva Zikmundová as Saint Ludmila is a bright, expressive, reasonably attractive-sounding soprano with a noticeable vibrato. She is a touch shrill in her high register. As the young peasant, tenor Vladimir Krejcik reveals a smooth and focused voice and alto Věra Soukupová as Svatava has a creamy, steady tone. Tenor Benno Blachut as Prince Bořivoj displays an attractive timbre and the voice of bass Richard Novák as Saint Ivan has a dark tinge that can sound menacing. Under Smetáček’s direction the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Symphony Orchestra are responsive, fresh and direct partners.

Substantial, at 78 minutes, the Dramatic Cantata: The Spectre’s Bride, Op. 69, B 135 scored for soprano, tenor and narrator, chorus and orchestra is also rarely performed. Written in 1884 it was a commission from England's Birmingham Music Festival. In 1885 it was introduced in Plzeň, Bohemia before it was triumphantly given at the Birmingham Festival; one of Dvořák’s greatest successes. This much acclaimed work is to a melodrama text by Karel Jaromír Erben based on a Czech legend with a maiden seduced by the spectre of her missing lover. As the maiden, bright-toned soprano Eva Urbanová sings beautifully with a most alluring tenderness and compassion. Highlights are Urbanová’s solos Žel bohu, kde můj tatíček? (Woeful am I! Where is my father?) and Maria Panno, při mně stůj (Hail Virgin Mary, stand by me). I was struck by the voice control of tenor Ĺudovít Luda in the role of the spectre and especially enjoyed the duet for tenor and soprano Pěkná noc, jasná – v tento čas (Fine night and clear; at such a time). Excelling as the narrator is the clear-toned Ivan Kusnjer, a baritone with noticeably impeccable diction. Conductor Jiří Belohlávek has certainly prepared his Prague choral and orchestral forces well and they make an incisive impact.

Concerning the devotional works it states in the booklet notes that “Faith in God was for Dvořák the cornerstone on which he built his own life and work hence it comes as no surprise that a number of his seminal pieces are within the domain of sacred music.” The most considerable at 100 minutes as well as being the most acclaimed is the Requiem for four soloists and mixed chorus and orchestra. From 1890 this profound Latin Requiem Mass in two parts was a commission by the Birmingham Festival rather than specifically motivated by the death of a loved one. The commissioners required the work to be of “utmost gravity.” It was to great acclaim that Dvořák conducted the premičre in 1891 at the Birmingham Festival. Wolfgang Sawallisch has engaged a well differentiated quartet of soloists: Gabriela Beňačková (soprano), Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Moser (tenor) and Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass). Together with the Prague Philharmonic Choir they make for eloquently blended singing that radiates a depth of sacred inspiration. In splendid form the Czech Philharmonic provides a colourful orchestral palette. A much admired work, the Requiem has been recorded many times. The strongest competition is the evergreen recording from Karel Ančerl, soloists Maria Stadler, Sieglinde Wagner, Ernst Haefliger and Kim Borg with the Czech Chorus, Prague and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Ančerl recorded the work in 1959 at the Rudolfinum, Prague for Deutsche Grammophon. I also relish the persuasive and moving 2014 Antwerp account recorded by soloists Ilse Eerens, Bernarda Fink, Maximilian Schmitt and Nathan Berg with Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic under Philippe Herreweghe on the PHI label.

Tragedy hit Dvořák hard with the death of his two year old daughter Josefa in 1876. The next year his two other children, Ružena and Otakar, died. In view of his severe personal anguish it came as no surprise that Dvořák, a deeply religious man, looked to the consolation of the Stabat mater the thirteenth century hymn to the suffering of Mary at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ her son. Successfully premičred at Prague under Adolf Čech in 1880 and acclaimed in London in 1883 Dvořák was invited to London to conduct a performance at the Albert Hall. At almost 80 minutes this work is given a compelling reading under Jiří Belohlávek with a dedicated quartet comprising Eva Urbanová (soprano), Marta Beňačková (mezzo-soprano), John Uhlenhopp (tenor) and Peter Mikuláš (bass). They sing with profound and reverential feeling. I was struck by the depth of intensity in the duet for soprano and tenor duet Fac, ut portem Christi mortem (Let me, to my latest breath). Belohlávek is a highly persuasive interpreter who draws impressive support from the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. This is an underrated score which I don’t come across too often. However, in March this year I was fortunate to attend a powerfully moving performance by soloists Erin Wall, Mihoko Fujimura, Christian Elsner and Liang Li with the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons at Herkulessaal, Munich. Thirty-nine years earlier the same choral and orchestral forces under Rafael Kubelik with soloists Edith Mathis, Anna Reynolds, Wieslaw Ochman and John Shirley-Quirk recorded a stirring and now classic account in the same Munich hall. In addition there is a highly desirable 2000 Staatsoper, Dresden account performed by soloists Mariana Zvetkova, Ruxandra Donose, Johan Botha and Roberto Scandiuzzi with the Chor der Staatsoper Dresden and Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli on Deutsche Grammophon.

The Mass in D major, sometimes known as the Luzany Mass, was completed in 1892 using the divine service of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass. It was arts patron Josef Hlavka who initiated the work for the consecration of a Chapel in Luzany, Bohemia. This was a small building hence an early 1887 version for organ, soloists and mixed choir. At a publisher’s request Dvořák produced an orchestral edition of the Mass in D in 1892 which was introduced in England the next year and which became popular. On this recording conductor Václav Smetáček takes just over 39 minutes to perform the work. An inspired reading from Smetáček with his quartet of soloists Marcela Machotková (soprano), Stanislava Škatulová (alto), Oldřich Lindauer (tenor) and Dalibor Jedlička (bass) speaks of spiritual intensity intensified by beautifully unified singing from the Prague Philharmonic Choir. The Prague Symphony Orchestra is notably supportive and there's a lovely organ part played by Jaroslav Tvrzský. Another recording of the Mass in D that I admire is conducted by Valery Polyansky with soloists Marina Meshcheriakova and Sergei Miasnikov supported by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and Cappella. This was recorded in 1995 at Moscow Conservatory on Chandos CHAN9505.
 
In response to a commission by Jeanette Thurber, president of New York’s National Conservatory of Music, Dvořák wrote a Te Deum for soprano and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra. This Latin liturgical hymn in celebration of God, was completed in 1892 and premičred by Dvořák at New York’s Carnegie Hall the same year. At 19 minutes this 1979 account from Smetáček and the Prague Symphony boasts splendidly committed playing with especially impressive contributions from the brass. The two soloists, the bright toned soprano Maria Helenita Olivares and dark-timbred baritone Gianni Maffeo provide well focused performances. The whole thing breathes satisfying piety and the singing of the Prague Philharmonic Choir is well unified. For its splendid sacred expression in the Te Deum I also favour the 1995 account from soloists Marina Meshcheriakova and Sergei Miasnikov with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and Cappella under Valery Polyansky recorded at Moscow Conservatory on Chandos CHAN9505.

To a Czech text Psalm 149 for chorus and orchestra Zaplesejte Bohu v novém pění (Sing to the Lord a new song), Op. 79 was completed in 1887. It was the Hlahol choral society of Prague that approached Dvořák to write a new sacred choral work. Initially for men’s choir Dvořák arranged the score for mixed chorus as heard here. At just under nine minutes on this 1983 recording Václav Neumann conducts the piece with unyielding insight, obtaining a stirring response from the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Czech Philharmonic. Another recording that deserves attention is the persuasive and committed 1991 account from the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Belohlávek recorded by Chandos at the Spanish Hall, Prague Castle (CHAN8985).

Also included set are the Biblical Songs in the versions for both solo voice and piano (CD 8) and also for solo voice and orchestra (CD 2). Composed by Dvořák quickly in 1894 the version for solo voice and piano comprises ten songs written to the words of David’s Book of Psalms not in Latin but in a Czech translation from Dvořák's own copy of the Kralice Bible. It was composed whilst in New York from his own motivation and no commission was involved. The next year Dvořák orchestrated the piano parts of the first five Biblical Songs. On this release the set of Biblical Songs for solo voice and piano is sung by alto Věra Soukupová accompanied by pianist Ivan Moravec. Although singing with clarity and focus Soukupová with her slightly dark edge doesn’t quite convey the degree of vocal colour that I was looking for. The version here for solo voice and orchestra is performed by baritone Jindřich Jindrák and the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Smetáček. Jindrák with his rich baritone is in stunning form and able to darken his delivery to striking effect. A real highlight the best known song Bože, Bože! píseň novou (I will sing new songs) is both rousing and uplifting. I must single out a quite exceptional recording of the Ten Biblical Songs (orch. Vilém Zemánek) performed by Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. In immaculate form Kožená was recorded live in 2012 at Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon.

The final CD contains four short sacred works, motets which are genuinely worthy of exploration. Taking around three minutes each to perform are the Ave maris stella for baritone and organ (1879); O sanctissima for alto, baritone and organ (1879); an Ave Maria for alto and organ (1877) and the Hymnus ad laudes in festo Sanctissimae Trinitatis for alto and organ (1878) - all delightful works that are rarely encountered. From 1991 Drahomíra Drobková (alto) and Richard Novak (bass-baritone) accompanied by organist Josef Ksica perform with a gratifying balance of expression and piety.

It states in the booklet notes that CD 8 holds a PDF file of the vocal texts with English translations. Annoyingly there wasn’t any such file detectable on my computer. I managed to obtain from the label the PDF file containing the texts; emailed to me. The lack of texts does impede the enjoyment so it’s a shame they have not been provided separately in the box. Written by Veronika Vejvodová the essay in the booklet translated into English is first class being highly informative and an interesting read. The sound quality of these Supraphon recordings recorded between 1963 and 1997 at three Prague locations but mainly in the impressive setting of the Rudolfinum is generally consistent across all 8 CDs. The exception is the slightly disappointing The Spectre’s Bride (CD 7) with its soloists somewhat distant from the microphone. The notes do not specify whether the recordings were made in the studio or in live concert but on the original issue of the Stabat Mater it states that it was recorded live. According to the booklet notes the recordings have been digitally remastered by Jan Lžičař in Prague in 2015.

These Dvořák works from the Supraphon archive range from semi-precious gems to polished jewels. A magnificent collection that will provide much pleasure.

Michael Cookson


 
Works and Performance Details
 
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Sacred Works and Cantatas

 
CD 1 [79.44]
Stabat Mater - Oratorio for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 58, B 71, (1877) [79.44]
Eva Urbanová (soprano), Marta Beňačková (mezzo), John Uhlenhopp (tenor), Peter Mikuláš (bass),
Prague Philharmonic Choir,
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. March 1997, Rudolfinum, Prague
 
CD 2 [72.36]
Te Deum for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 103, B 176, (1892) [19.02]
Maria Helenita Olivares (soprano), Gianni Maffeo (baritone),
Prague Philharmonic Choir,
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček
rec. March 1970, Rudolfinum, Prague
Mass in D major for Soloists, Chorus, Organ and Orchestra, Op. 86, B 175 (1892) [39.14]
Marcela Machotková (soprano), Stanislava Škatulová (alto), Oldřich Lindauer (tenor), Dalibor Jedlička (bass), Jaroslav Tvrzský (organ)
Prague Philharmonic Choir,
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček
rec. November 1969, Rudolfinum, Prague
Biblical Songs for Solo Voice and Orchestra, Op. 99, B 189, (1895) [14.06]
Jindřich Jindrák (baritone)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček
rec. April 1970, Rudolfinum, Prague
 
CD 3 [77.34]
Requiem for Solo Voices, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 89, B 165, (1890)
(Introitus to Hostias) [77.34]
 
CD 4 [50.29]
Requiem, Op. 89 (Sanctus to Agnus Dei) (continued) [22.36]
Gabriela Beňačková (soprano), Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo), Thomas Moser (tenor), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. June 1984, Rudolfinum, Prague
Psalm 149 for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 79 (1887) [8.50]
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Václav Neumann
rec. January 1983, Rudolfinum, Prague
The Heirs of the White Mountain - Patriotic Hymn from the Poem by Vítězslav Hálek for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 30, B 134, (1887) [18.43]
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Zdeněk Košler
rec. January 1973, Rudolfinum, Prague
 
CD 5 [65.05]
Saint Ludmila - Oratorio for Soli, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 71, B 144 (1886) (Part I) [65.05]

CD 6 [71.47]
Saint Ludmila, Op. 71 (Parts II & III) (continued) [71.47]
Eva Zikmundová (soprano) - Saint Ludmila; Vera Soukupová (alto) - Svatava; Vladimir Krejcik (tenor) - young peasant; Benno Blachut (tenor) - Bořivoj; Richard Novák (bass) - Saint Ivan
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Václav Smetáček
rec. October/November 1963, Rudolfinum, Prague
 
CD 7 [78.27]
The Spectre’s Bride - Dramatic Cantata to the Words by Karel Jaromír Erben (1884) Op. 69, B 135, [78.27]
Eva Urbanová (soprano) - maiden; Ĺudovít Luda (tenor) - Spectre; Ivan Kusnjer (bass) - narrator
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Belohlávek
rec. November 1995, Rudolfinum, Prague
 
CD 8 [41.20]
Ave maris stella for Baritone and Organ, Op. 19A, B 95A (1879) [3.21]
Richard Novak (bass-baritone), Josef Ksica (organ)
O sanctissima for Alto, Baritone and Organ, Op. 19A, B 95B (1879) [2.52]
Drahomíra Drobková (alto), Richard Novak (bass-baritone), Josef Ksica (organ)
Ave Maria for Alto and Organ, Op. 19B, B 68, (1877) [2.57]
Drahomíra Drobková (alto), Josef Ksica (organ)
Hymnus ad laudes in festo Sanctissimae Trinitatis for Alto and Organ, Sine op, B 82 (1878) [2.39]
Drahomíra Drobková (alto), Josef Ksica (organ)
rec. June 1991, Soukenická Prayer Hall of the Czech Brethren Evangelical Church, Prague
Biblical Songs for Solo Voice and Piano, Op. 99, B 185, (1894) [29.09]
Věra Soukupová (alto), Ivan Moravec (piano)
rec. January 1967, Domovina Studio, Prague

 




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