DVORAK: Stabat Mater, Op. 58; TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Maria Stader, sop./ Vera Soukupova, mezzo-sop./ Ivo Zidek, tenor/ Eduard Haken, bass/ Czech Philharmonic/ Czech Singers’ Chorus/ Nathan Milstein, violin/ Karel Ancerl – Tahra 755-756 (2 CDs), 58:14, 58:34 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Performances taken from the 1962 Montreux Festival capture the fine art of Czech conductor Karel Ancerl (1908-1973), who led the Czech Philharmonic from 1950-1968. Ancerl conducts a major testament of mourning (13 September 1962) by Dvorak, his 1875-1877 Stabat Mater, a tribute to the loss of three of the Dvorak children. Of the various settings of the Latin liturgical text, Dvorak’s is the longest, his having divided the text into ten sections, each essentially an adagio. The deeply agonized tone of the work emerges immediately from the F-sharp of the opening Stabat Mater dolorosa – appearing in various registers – set as a ternary song in which Dvorak repeats words in his recapitulation, a practice expressly forbidden in the regular Latin service. The devotional attitude Ancerl bestows into this work certainly does justice to Ancerl’s model, the great Vaclav Talich (1883-1961) – his predecessor at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra who recorded the piece for Supraphon – and to Ancerl’s own personal loss, having suffered his first family’s destruction in the Holocaust. Over the course of his career, Ancerl led the Stabat Mater seven times.

From the extended outset, Ancerl illuminates Dvorak’s sincere anguished intensity.  In spite of the tragic pain in this work, Dvorak’s tender melodies themselves seem to provide consolation, beginning with chorus’ entry which rises to a fateful climax, and the tenor solo, “Cujus animam gementem.” The sense of an obsessive torment, however, remains apparent, not only in emotional later pages of the “Stabat Mater dolorosa” but in the dirge-like, first four notes of the theme of the “Quis est homo,” a contrapuntally lyrical canon which features a profound low E for the bass voice. The splendid “Eja, Mater, fons amoris” sung by the choir remains my personal favorite movement, alternating as it does the same words, first in haunting martial terms and then as a touching choral lyric. Basso Eduard Haken (1910-1996) excels in the “Fac, ut ardeat cor meum,” a moment of grueling beauty, rife with a tortured melodic line and harmonic daring that counter the chorus’ seemingly transcendent calm.  Haken’s voice against the flute late in the movement poignantly attests to Dvorak’s genius.

For the fifth movement, “Tui Nati vulnerati,” Dvorak turns to the major mode and accelerates the tempo. The chorus intones a sweet pastoral’s plea for hope, after which the music becomes more turbulent and polyphonic.  Tenor Ivo Zidek (1926-2003) joins the chorus for “Fac, me vere tecum flere,” a devotional hymnal of harmonic subtlety. The “Slavonic” colors Ancerl elicits here become quite resplendent as the intensity builds, although the mortal storm in the middle passes quickly. The full chorus returns for “Virgo virginum praeclara,” a precious moment of any mother’s commitment to her child, often moving a cappella and then in warm orchestral accompaniment. The last bars indicate a fermata for the chorus while the orchestra dissolves into an ethereal A Major quite beholden to Mozart.

The always-fluent Maria Stader (1911-1999) joins Ivo Zidek for “Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,” an inter-woven duet that adds woodwinds, horns, and tympani to the alchemical rhythmic motif that provides the faithful mystery of this episode. Czech mezzo Vera Soukupova (b. 1932) intones the “Inflammatus et accensus,” a musical moment in which Dvorak “confesses” his admiration of Handel’s walking-bass and baroque ritornello style that Dvorak soon evolves into Romantic conceits. The last movement, “Quando corpus morietur,” returns to the fateful F-sharps of the beginning, here as a tense prelude to the luxuriant even frantic, “Amen” chorus and its manic promise of Paradise. Ancerl can demonstrate the sheer power of his forces; although he must yield finally to the sense of introspection, as the Amen becomes whispered, and orchestra concludes in a quiet D Major.

Odessa born Nathan Milstein (1904-1992) hardly requires my endorsement for another (5 September 1962) of his multifarious renditions of the Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto, which he drives forward with his especial sweet urgency. The various moods, gestures, and moments of sheer technical bravura proceed so effortlessly, we forget in just how masterly a fashion the entire work has evolved into a Russian firebrand of the most superlative display.  The audience has a hard enough time containing their enthusiasm after the last tympani beat in the first movement alone!

—Gary Lemco