A Spirited and Convincing Performance of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Three Choirs Festival (3) Dvorák:  Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Paul Nilon (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Geraint Bowen (conductor), Worcester Cathedral, 27.7.2014 (JQ)

Dvorák – Stabat Mater 

  Dvorák began work on his large-scale setting of the medieval devotional poem, ‘Stabat Mater’, in early 1876. This appears to have been a response to the death of his infant daughter the previous year. The project was not completed immediately but later in 1877 the composer and his wife were hit by not one but two further grievous blows when both of their other children died in infancy within a month of each other. This dreadful misfortune seems to have given Dvorák the stimulus to complete his Stabat Mater which he did within a couple of months. The new work enjoyed immediate success, including in England where a first performance in 1883 was followed a year later by one under the composer himself, of which more in a moment. It is a relatively early work: by the time of its composition, for example, Dvorák had composed only four of his nine symphonies and all of his most celebrated works lay in the future.

Although the Stabat Mater achieved early success it is not heard so often nowadays. Why should this be so since it contains a good deal of attractive music? I suspect that one issue is the length of the work: this evening’s performance ran for 82 minutes by my watch. The issue of the length is compounded – indeed largely caused – by the composer’s tendency to repetition. Musical ideas, attractive in themselves, tend to be aired again and again within a movement and several of the work’s ten movements have a tripartite structure under which the opening material is followed by a central section after which the original music is revisited. Furthermore, though there are dramatic episodes – and these were given full value in this performance – the setting is not as powerful as those by, say, Rossini or Verdi, both men of the theatre through and through.

I mentioned the work’s second performance in England, in 1884; it’s not quite clear where this took place. Malcolm Hayes stated in his programme note for this concert that it was given in the Royal Albert Hall. However, in his very thorough book, Three Choirs, A History of the Festival (1992) Anthony Boden says that the second English performance took place at the Three Choirs Festival, which was held in Worcester that year. (The following evening the composer conducted a performance of his D major symphony, which we now know as the Sixth.) I don’t know how often, if at all, the work has been revived at the Festival – there are no further references to it in Mr Boden’s book – but, assuming Anthony Boden has correctly chronicled the composer’s visit to Worcester, then 130 years after Dvorák’s own performance in the cathedral it was good that Peter Nardone had included it in this year’s Festival.

It was not Mr Nardone but his colleague from Hereford, Geraint Bowen, who was on the rostrum for this performance and I thought he did a fine job. Throughout the performance it seemed to me that his tempi were ideally chosen. But not only were his speeds for individual movements well judged; I felt that the pace of the entire work was well conceived so that we didn’t hear simply a succession of numbers but, rather, Mr Bowen had a strong sense of the work’s overall structure. He was very successful with the many lyrical passages in the work but he was just as good at doing justice to the moments of power and drama. It seemed to me that he inspired his performers throughout, ensuring that the performance had conviction from start to finish. I found his reading of the score significantly more satisfying and convincing than a live performance conducted by Neeme Järvi that I reviewed recently on CD.

Outstanding among the solo quartet was bass Matthew Rose. He impressed consistently with his firm tone and there was admirable amplitude in his voice, which he projected strongly but without any apparent effort. The part covers a wide compass of over two octaves and Mr Rose was completely secure throughout this range. He gave a very fine and imposing account of his big solo, ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, fresh from her appearance at the first night of the Proms (review), is a vastly experienced oratorio singer and she was on fine form here. I especially admired her singing in her big aria, ‘Inflammatus’.

The soprano, Eleanor Dennis, offered a good deal of pleasing singing and there was much to admire in her pure, silvery tone and her calm delivery. That said, I felt her performance was rather too contained and at times I longed for her to open up. I’m afraid the singing of tenor Paul Nilon was not at all to my taste. Though described as a lyric tenor I heard little that was lyrical on this occasion. On the contrary, his singing often seemed effortful – the long first movement was a case in point – and there was a distressing tendency to spread notes. Though an operatic style can work in this music I prefer to hear a lighter, cleaner voice, especially in ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ where the tenor is especially to the fore. Nilon’s unstylish singing was the weak link in the quartet, I fear.

The Festival Chorus was on fine form. They were probably more comfortable than on the previous evening (review) – it was rather less hot and the gentlemen had been allowed to dispense with jackets – and I also had the feeling that they perhaps enjoyed Dvorák’s music even more than Britten’s. Their singing was accurate, focused, robust and well balanced. My sole criticism would be that when the chorus parts were marked – as they often are – piano or pianissimo the singing wasn’t quite quiet enough. However, there was much to enjoy and admire in the choral singing. They were particularly successful, I thought, in the extended opening movement, in the third movement ‘Eia, Mater, fons amoris’ and in the last section of the work where the allegro molto ‘Amen’ had real vitality. The forthright unaccompanied declamation in the closing pages, beginning with the words ‘Quando corpus morietur’ was singularly impressive.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played very well indeed, save in one respect: they were often too loud. It’s wonderful for the Festival to have such a strong link with this top-class ensemble and long may that continue. However, each year there does seem to be this one problem. Is it that the players find it difficult to adjust from conventional concert hall acoustics to the much more resonant acoustic of a cathedral, especially when rehearsal time in situ is, of necessity, limited? Or perhaps the Philharmonia doesn’t give too many concerts with a large choir during the course of a year? Whatever the reason if this issue could be addressed then I’m sure we’d find that the old adage ‘less means more’ is true.

I enjoyed this spirited and convincing performance very much. Opportunities to hear Dvorák’s Stabat Mater live are likely to remain infrequent – this was the first time I’d heard it other than on CD – so we should be doubly grateful to the Three Choirs Festival for providing it.

John Quinn

1 thought on “A Spirited and Convincing Performance of Dvořák’s <i> Stabat Mater</I> at the Three Choirs Festival”

  1. I really am amazed when this reviewer – and others like him – suggest that when an orchestra plays too loud, it is because they can do no other. It is always the responsibility, and I repeat “always”, of the conductor to ensure that balance and volume are at the service of the score. If the conductor is incapable of realising that his orchestra are playing too loud, that is entirely his fault. All orchestral musicians I know perfectly well know the difference between ppp, pp, p, mf, f. ff and fff.


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