Dvořák’s Stabat Mater Masterfully Conducted by Jakub Hrůša

19/11/2017

Dvořák: Simona Šaturová (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (contralto), Steve Davislim (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Rustam Samedov), Schola of the Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Benjamin Goodson), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 17.11.2017. (MB)

Dvořák – Stabat Mater, op.58

For whatever reason – I could speculate on a few, but shall not do so here – many, if not all, large-scale choral works from the nineteenth century seem to have fallen out of fashion, perhaps especially in Britain. Brahms’s German Requiem will surely always have a following, and rightly so; but I have managed to hear Elijah – formerly, at least to the Victorians, ‘“the” Elijah’ – precisely once, and St Paul never. Nor had I ever heard Dvořák’s Stabat Mater before in concert. (As for the following Verdi’s Requiem has, it can only be accounted for by the following mysteriously acquired by the rest of his regrettable œuvre.) It was a delight, then, to hear such a fine performance from the Berlin Radio Choir and its ‘Schola’, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB), and Jakub Hrůša. Even if I had my doubts about some of the solo contributions, they were largely on matters of taste rather than anything more fundamental.

To ascribe grief – and ultimately, consolation – in such a musical setting straightforwardly to personal circumstances will usually be to sentimentalise; artistic creation is never, thank God, quite so straightforward as that. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the sequential loss of his three children may have had some connection with what Dvořák wrote, even though it goes far beyond that, to what we might at a pinch – before deconstruction sets in – still consider a (more) universal message. His setting is certainly an unusually powerful, focused work for a composer whose unevenness and, sometimes, formal inadequacy are often skated over by apologists of nationalist and other hues. (That hapless Seventh Symphony, for instance, whatever its incidental pleasures!) At his best, Dvořák is excellent indeed; all too often, however, he is not at his best. He comes at least close to that best here, I think, and often indeed reaches it.

Its opening sadness – first, those extraordinary repeated F-sharps, the sharp sign a longstanding piece of musical crucifixion iconography, then a crucial, as it were, descending figure – registered not only powerfully, but, in a dynamic sense, dramatically. Icy or, better, cold – since it is certainly human – that descending orchestral figure grew ever more intense with every sequential or developmental reliving of its pain. Here, as often in this work, Dvořák proves more ‘symphonic’ than in any of his symphonies, or at least more consistently so – with, as ever, the great exception of the deservedly popular Ninth. Or maybe, I began to wonder, given the distinction of the performance, it was just that I had not heard Hrůša conduct them. The music seeped into, formed the foundation, motivic and dramatic, for the first movement (choral and soloists): soft at first, building to beautifully shaped climaxes, without merely determining it. Indeed such was the distinction of the choral singing, words and notes equally well projected, that one had the retrospective sense that the words of the poem had determined the music of the introduction too.

Alas, soprano Simona Šaturová’s first entry was, quite frankly, weak, and both the tenor (Steve Davislim) and bass (Jan Martiník) proved rather ‘operatic’, in an almost Verdian way, for me. Only Elisabeth Kulman’s predictably excellent way, rich of tone, thoughtful of words, seemed in keeping with the rest of the performance. Davislim and Martiník sang very well on their own terms, though, and I can only presume that Hrůša had no problem with those terms either. It does one no harm, in any case, to listen to performances of high quality that do not correspond to how one instinctively, or indeed otherwise, hears a work in one’s head. In that sense, only Šaturová was disappointing, and she improved as the work proceeded. If her vowels were odd, and her consonants often indistinct, in her later duet (‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem), her line was much cleaner by then.

A great strength to Hrůša’s reading was that there was always a strong sense of the work as a whole, just as in a symphony. Individual movements, or numbers, or whatever we want to call them, were sections of the poem, not poems in themselves. And so, the second movement Quartet followed on, related to, intensifying, certainly not repeating the mood of its predecessor. Even if I did not always care for the style of the solo singing, the RSB’s playing was second to none, not least the sweetness and warmth of the strings. (Czech music is no better served by ascribing some birth right to ‘national’ orchestras, than English music is. Who, after all, is better with Elgar today than Daniel Barenboim?) Fundamentals, in the harmonic and a more general sense, were always well taken care of: generative, again just as they would be in a symphony. The following chorus continued in similar vein: which, again, is to stress ‘continued’, with the kinship and difference that implies. The cries of ‘fac’ were every bit as ‘dramatic’ as one could have hoped for, not least since they were presented in context, no mere ‘effect’.

Different characters were to be heard in the following movements: never unnecessarily contrasted, but likewise never quite drawn from the same colours. Brahms, for instance, haunted the tenor solo and chorus, ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’, but in the orchestral sound itself, orchestral and textures themselves simpler, yet undeniably radiant. As the work progressed, transformation, even perhaps transfiguration, crept upon us. It was difficult to say precisely where or when: doubtless as it should be. Hrůša’s control of large-scale structures proved just as un-showily impressive as it had earlier this year when I heard him conduct – magnificently – the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

The neo-Baroque character of the penultimate movement, the solo contralto ‘Inflammatus’ was for me very much a highpoint – both of work and performance. Compassion here seemed very much to the fore, both for Kulman and the orchestra. Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, but certainly not to be taken for granted, Hrůša proved masterly in binding together the work in its final quartet and chorus. It was not merely a recognition of reappearance of earlier material, but of its developmental quality; contextual difference spoke just as strongly as similarity. There was ambiguity, quite rightly, at the close: exultant, yet not unalloyed. That one could – and this listener, at least, did – read back into what we had heard before. This, then, was an excellent concert; I was sad only to have had to miss the bonus concert of a cappella works scheduled immediately afterwards.

Mark Berry

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