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Antonn DVOŘK (1841-1904)
Stabat mater, Op. 58, B.71 (1876/77)
Erin Wall (soprano); Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo); Christian Elsner (tenor); Liang Li (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 24 and 26 March 2015, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
Latin text and English and German translations included
BR KLASSIK 900142 [77.55]

I admire Dvořk’s setting of the Stabat Mater very much. It may not match the settings by Rossini or Verdi in terms of overt dramatic intensity but it contains a great deal of deeply-felt music. As so often with this composer, the piece is unfailingly attractive to the listener. I think, however, that there is one problem with it. Dvořk was somewhat prone to repeat himself, a trait that is in evidence in several of the movements, especially the first (‘Stabat mater dolorosa’) and the third (‘Eja, mater, fons amoris’). The piece is not heard as often as it deserves to be these days and I wonder whether amateur choral societies are deterred by its length. If Dvořk had edited it down to, say, 65 minutes it might have been beneficial.

In connection with duration I suspect that Vera Baur’s useful booklet essay has been written without reference to the present performance for she comments that it “takes around 90 minutes to perform”. That’s true of a number of performances I’ve heard. For example Rafael Kubelik’s 1976 DG recording which – made, incidentally, in the same hall as this Jansons performance was given and with an earlier incarnation of the same orchestra and chorus – plays for 83:57. Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Dresden recording for the same label comes in at 87:34 (review) and the historic 1952 Supraphon account conducted by Vaclav Talich takes 85:18 (review). Jansons' overall timing is significantly quicker although, mercifully, he’s nowhere near as fast as Neeme Jrvi in a live account that I reviewed a while ago and which lasted for a mere 67:08. This Jansons performance is superior in just about every respect to the Jrvi version and although his reading may be a few minutes shorter than those I’ve mentioned above there was no time at which I felt he was pressing the music unduly. On the contrary, he’s urgent where the music calls for it, expansive at other times and he consistently lets Dvořk’s invention come through in a thoroughly natural and convincing way.

Jansons’ solo quartet combines East and West; it consists of a Japanese mezzo, a Chinese bass, a Canadian soprano and a German tenor. I’ve heard Erin Wall sing Britten and Richard Strauss, both live and on recordings, and have liked what I’ve heard. She makes a good contribution here. She and the rest of the quartet combine to good effect, not least in the movement in which they feature without the choir, ‘Quis est homo’. Later on Miss Wall sings very expressively in her duet with the tenor, ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’, though I like the way Edith Mathis sings this movement for Kubelik even more. I’ve encountered the Japanese mezzo, Mihoko Fujimura once or twice on disc – always to good effect – though the performance that really brought her to my attention was an outstanding contribution to a tremendous performance under Andris Nelsons of Mahler’s Second Symphony back in 2012 (review). Here she has a very different task but I enjoyed her singing, particularly in the penultimate movement, ‘Inflammatus’, which is an alto solo. This is nowhere near as incendiary a setting as Rossini makes it but Miss Fujimura sings it very well indeed and elsewhere she’s never less than a reliable quartet member.

Liang Li provides a firm foundation to the quartet. His solo movement is ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’ and much of what he does here is suitably imposing. The tenor, Christian Elsner makes a fine showing; indeed, he’s arguably the pick of the soloists. He’s the first we hear in the opening movement and you sense from his confident, ringing delivery at that point that he’s going to impress. I especially liked the plangency with which he sings ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’; the timbre and the way he produces the sound is just right. Just right too is the decisive way that he articulates the more impassioned central section of that movement.

Both the Choir and Symphony Orchestra of Bavarian Radio have been praised very often on MusicWeb International, and rightly so. Here the singing is sensitive and incisive and completely responsive to Dvořk’s dynamics. This is as good a choral contribution as I’ve heard in this work on disc. The orchestra lives up to its high reputation, offering playing that is a consistent delight. There’s finesse in abundance and, when required, no want of power.

As for Jansons himself I find his conducting of the score completely persuasive. He judges the tempi with enormous understanding. Furthermore he knows just how much and when to ratchet up the intensity – the orchestral opening is a fine case in point – and his instinct for when to relax is just as sound. His is a masterly reading.

We’ve also had occasion to praise the sound quality of BR Klassik releases many times. This is another very fine recording. I appreciate the way in which the engineers have been able to achieve clarity and yet at the same time produce a sound that is warm and natural. The balance between choir and orchestra has been expertly judged and the soloists are heard to excellent advantage.

The booklet includes a very good essay by Vera Baur but, sadly, there’s no sign of text or translations. That’s regrettable because the Latin text of the medieval poem that Dvořk set is a long one and the words won’t be familiar to all.

Up to now my favourite among the recordings that I know of this work has been the Kubelik version. I still have a great affection for it and overall three of Kubelik’s solo team - Edith Mathis, Anna Reynolds and John Shirley-Quirk retain the edge – though I prefer Christian Elsner to Wiesław Ochmann, good though the latter is. I think the present day Bavarian Radio Choir is better than the 1976 incarnation of the choir. Jansons invests the score with a slightly greater degree of urgency and I like that. It should also be said that though the sound quality of Kubelik’s DG recording has aged well, Jansons has the advantage of up-to-date digital sound.

On balance, though I shan’t be parting with my Kubelik disc any time soon. I would now rank this fine new Jansons version above it. It’s a distinguished addition to the Dvořk discography.

John Quinn

Previous review Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)



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