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Antonin Dvorak Stabat Mater.

Eri Nakamura--soprano, Elizabeth Kulman--mezzo-soprano, Michael Spyres--tenor, Jongmin Park--bass, Czech Philharmonic, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Jiri Belohlavek--conductor.

Text: English, German, French.

Recorded: Mar. 2016 , Rudolfinum, Prague. Released: 2017. TT: 83:06.

DDD. 2 CDs, Decca 483 1510.

Writing about the history of the Stabat Mater sequence is not necessary, as all the fundamental information can be found on the internet. The image of the grief of a mother who has lost her child and faces up to her sorrow with a bold faith in God has been used as part of the liturgy at Lent and intensely perceived for centuries. The original Latin text has been set to music by numerous composers, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Gioachino Rossini, Karol Szymanowski, Giuseppe Verdi, Ferenc Liszt, Krzysztof Penderecki and others. Yet, without being patriotic, I must say that the most extensive, and the best, is the setting by Antonin Dvorak. And while his Symphony No. 9 has been captured on dozens of albums, there are only 11 recordings of his no less inspired Stabat Mater. The best-known Czech recording to date has been the one made in 1987 at the Rudolfinum hall in Prague by the Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and four superlative soloists (Benackova-Capova, Wenkel, Dvorsky, Rootering), conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The title still ranks among the most valuable Supraphon releases. Jiri Belohlavek made three recordings of Stabat Mater: in 1997, for Chandos, (along with Dvorak's Psalm 149)] in 1997, for Supraphon; and in 2016, for Decca, all of them with the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Philharmonic Choir, who have recorded (and most likely performed) the piece on more occasions than any other Czech orchestra and chorus has done. In the 1990s, Belohlavek opted for the Bambini di Praga, while for the most recent of his recordings, made in 2016, he wisely chose the females singers of the Prague Philharmonic Choir to perform the heavenly voices. Let us view the Decca album through the prism of three other creations: those of Rafael Kubelik (conducting the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra and Choir, with the soloists Mathis, Reynolds, Ochran and Shirley-Quirk), Giuseppe Sinopoli (conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, with Zvetkova, Donose, Botha and Scandiuzzi), and Wolfgang Sawallisch.

During his second tenure as the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, which this year was unexpectedly and cruelly put to an end by his untimely death, Belohlavek in part gravitated towards a repertoire featuring inner lyricism, contemplation, non-impassioned emotionality. Compared to his accounts of the same music in the 1980s, he often favoured slower tempos. A case in point in this respect in his take on Stabat Mater, with the introductory, philosophical part Stabat Mater dolorosa, Fac, ut ardeat cor meum, and the sanguine final Quando corpus morietur sounding majestically grand, forming a seemingly unceasing torrent of music. Initially, you may perceive it as slow, sluggish even, yet that impression is illusory--upon attentive listening to the recording, you will probably arrive at the same conclusion as I have: that what we hear is an infinite lyrical poem, harbouring vivid detail, refined internal structure, now and then coming across as a harrowingly poignant prayer, silent grief, the mother's pure love for her child, as well as faith: "By the Cross with thee to stay, there with thee to weep and pray, is all I ask of thee to give". Following Jiri Belohlavek's passing away, I asked myself whether the unctuosity, humility and burning entreaty his recording emanates may have resulted from his being seriously ill. As though he had identified himself with the "Son on the Cross".., After all, In my opinion, Belohlavek tempos should not be viewed as extraordinarily slow and contemplative. The figures are clear. To give but a few examples as regards the duration of the Stabat Mater dolorosa section: Belohlavek--19:48, Kubelik--18:30, Sawallisch--20:58, Sinopoli--20:36, with the longest account being that of Vaclav Smetacek, 23 minutes. Belohlavek has displayed his sense of proportion and the work's tectonics throughout the more than 83-minute recording. In his case, the performance of the second part, Quartetto, is faster (10:09) than that of Kubelik (11:18) and Sinopoli (11:27!). And I could go on in this direction, yet mere numbers do not say anything about the content and philosophy of the interpretation. While Sinopoli comprehends the piece as a grand oratorio, delivering it in a sweeping manner, exaggerating both the tempos and the expression, and the intimacy that meanders through Belohlavek's third, and most outstanding, recording is present in his account as wild strawberries in the winter forest. The climax of Belohlavek's creation is the highly forcible finale, Quando corpus morietur. When I try to recall whether I have ever heard it performed as enthrallingly as that, I find Belohlavek's account to eclipse even the performances of Sawallisch and Kubelik. Owing largely to the Prague Philharmonic Choir, the Paradisi gloria gives me the impression of the heavens having opened. I can only concur with the words: "The catharsis in the Quando corpus morietur serves as proof of Dvorak's prowess and equanimity resulting from his deep faith and trust in God's will. It may explain why his Stabat Mater does not only bring sorrowful intonations, and if it does, they never remain hopelessly open, yet lead into the answer of conciliation and humility". After having listened to all the recordings of Stabat Mater featuring the Prague Philharmonic Choir, I have arrived at the conclusion that they have attained their best outcome to date in Belohlavek's three accounts. And the same applies to the orchestra, which plays precisely, intensely, vigorously, occasionally reaching for a colour I had not heard previously (Eja Mater, Quando corpus).

Unfortunately, I have never encountered a recording of Stabat Mater that could be deemed faultless in all regards. The performances of the four soloists on Belohlavek's third album are not ideally balanced in vocal terms. While the tenor Michael Spyres sings vibrantly and freshly, and the bass Jongmin Park excels not only with his pleasant voice but also understanding of the music's specifics, I do find the female singers rather disappointing (although, owing to the audio engineers, the recording has worked out better than the concerts did). The voice of Eri Nakamura is shrill in a few phrases and her vibrato has a rich amplitude. The mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Kulman sounds far better, even though now and then she somewhat whoops.

By and large, Belohlavek's conceptually crystallised Stabat Mater ranks among the very best recordings of the peerless work. Regrettably, it would seem that in the case of grand Romantic sacred pieces it Is simply not possible to attain utter perfection. On the other hand, the enteral wait for the ideal may be beneficial...

Lubos Stehlik
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Author:Stehlik, Lubos
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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