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DVORAK: Stabat Mater – Soloists/Radio Sym. & Choir of Bavarian Radio/ Mariss Janssons – BR Klassik

This live performance maintains an air of piety and devotion requisite to its powerful musical occasion.

DVORAK: Stabat Mater, Op. 58 – Erin Wall, sop./ Minoko Fujimura, mezzo-sop./ Christian Elsner, tenor/ Liang Li, bass/ Choir of the Bavarian Radio/ Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./ Mariss Janssons – BR Klassik 900142, 77:55 [Distr. by Naxos] (1/8/16) *****: 

When discussing Dvorak’s epic 1876-80 Stabat Mater (in b minor) with the late choral conductor David Randolph, I came to realize the innate difficulty of sustaining the musical tension of “a work consisting of basically ten adagios,” in Randolph’s words. Indeed, only one movement, the fifth, indicates a tempo that includes quasi allegretto. A series of personal tragedies – especially among his children – may have triggered Dvorak’s fascination with texts illustrating the pain of Mary in the face of her son’s crucifixion. Pietistic and emotionally introverted, the score embraces a deep sense of lamentation and tragic loss, colored only occasionally by moments of grudging optimism.  My first recording of the work, led by the venerable Dvorak master, Vaclav Talich, projected a staid dignity and breadth of conception, and the present realization (rec. 24-26 March 2015) from Munich makes a worthy successor.

From the expansive outset, the introductory Andante con moto, conductor Janssons sets the tone of introspective valediction, an ambiguity of grief and consolation. The oboe and flute – after c. 50 bars – introduce a major mode of lyrical comfort and succor into which light may flow through the choir.  The combination of orchestra and chorus transfixes us in waves of emotion, some quite implosive, especially in the dolce sections of radiant compassion.  The emotional commitment, girded by simple but refined harmony, produces a miraculous effect. The few moments of hope will later – in the tenth Quando corpus morietur section – find fulfillment, in the Amen fugue that leads to a D Major kiss of peace, a triumphant declaration of faith.

The vocal quartet had been unfamiliar to me, and they happily work well together. Bass Liang Li comes as a potent surprise, especially in his section four Fac ut ardet cor meum, a sentiment close to Kierkegaard’s notion of constant, passionate awareness. The vocal quartet at Quis est homo, qui non fieret, which identifies Mary as the poignant witness to his crucifixion achieves an ardent, illuminated level of expression. Bass Li intones his “Pro pecatis suae gentis/Vidit Jesum in tormentis” with agonized piety.  The orchestral tissue seems to sweep through the texture with the force of a pained breeze wafting to all humanity. Minor keys dominate the second through fourth sections, my personal admiration constantly looking to the Eja, mater, fons amoris, ever since the Talich ensemble made it live for me. Only the “All Flesh is like Grass” section of the Brahms A German Requiem approaches this martial lament for emotional resonance.  Mary has assumed centrality in this mystical procession. The chorus proper resounds fervently throughout, beautifully synchronized and recorded by Wilhelm Meister.

The fifth section, Tui nati vulnerati, Dvorak sets in E-flat Major as a gentle pastoral, the music in fine contrast to the text, depicting the suffering of Jesus. Tenor Christian Elsner joins the chorus for Fac me vere tecum fiere, a meditation on the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, bearing the sins of the world.  I find Elsner’s voice a bit pinched in color, making one wish for Fritz Wunderlich or Peter Anders here.  Still, the lyric declamation and stunning interchange with the male chorus remain impressive. Dvorak utilizes a cappella texture for the Virgo virginum praeclara movement, a Largo that raises a simple prayer of gratitude to Mary. Then, tenor Elsner engages, Larghetto, in duo with soprano Erin Wall in Fac, ut portem Christi mortem, a sentiment that transfers Christ’s scourges to his brethren and believers. The woodwind instruments, particularly oboe and bassoon, contribute to the air of hopeful rapture in the midst of anguish.  Mezzo-soprano Fujimura has her moment in the ninth movement, Inflammatus et accensus, beseeching  the Savior to shield humanity from the flames of Apocalypse. Virtually Handelian in conception and tenor, this Andante maestoso seems to assuage the otherwise withering flames of the Last Judgment.

The last section, Quando corpus morietur, exhibits Dvorak’s technical mastery at its finest, employing an eight-part chorus to confirm vision of eternal life promised by the unison F-sharp that had opened the entire work.  Music from the first movement reappears and intensifies to a sung a cappella fortissimo. The lament of the first movement transfigures into a major mode declaration of spiritual security. Vocal quartet and blazing orchestral colors converge in Handelian grandeur of “Amen” that proclaims the reality of the Paradisi Gloria for those of faith.  The purity of voice that Janssons elicits from his chorus a cappella, then over a pedal tympani, remind us why that D Major vista so convinced the oratorio-conditioned British public at its premiere that a new masterpiece confronted them.  We had hardly been aware that BK had issued a live performance, so enthralled had been Jansson’s audience until the last chords permits them their total approbation of the amazing music.

—Gary Lemco

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