Jakub Hrůša‘s ‘wonderful gift’ to Berlin: an outstanding account of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák: Corinne Winters (soprano), Marvic Monreal (mezzo-soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass). Rundfunkchor Berlin (chorus director: Gijs Leenaars), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 13.10.2023. (MB)

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at Berlin’s Philharmonie © Bettina Stöss/Berliner Philharmoniker

Dvořák – Stabat Mater, Op.58

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is clearly a favourite work for Jakub Hrůša. Six years ago he conducted it in this same hall (review here), Berlin’s Philharmonie, with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; in 2023, it was the turn of the Berlin Philharmonic. Hrůša has called the piece a ‘wonderful gift’; he, a fine team of soloists, chorus, and orchestra in turn offered a wonderful gift to the audience with this performance. If the work, like many others, is not without unevenness, much of it has the composer firing on all cylinders. At a time when, even by current standards, our world is overwhelmed with grief, it will surely have spoken clearly and directly to many. It certainly did so to me.

A first movement of quite extraordinary power did so from the outset. Hrůša and the orchestra offered a translucent introduction, elemental without Brucknerising, chromatic descending sequences grief-laden without sentimentality, leading somehow almost magically towards the entry of the chorus, which both emerged from and intensified such feelings, as clear of line as it was full of tone. I cannot imagine the climaxes have ever sounded more shattering. David Butt Philip’s tenor entry similarly grew out of an extension of what had gone before. If somewhat operatic, that is the nature of the piece; it became more so with impassioned singing from the full quartet. Hrůša’s formal command was unerring, a crucial matter in a work of this scale. The vocal quartet that followed was naturally more intimate in scale, though no less heartfelt. Splendidly declamatory singing from Corinne Winters had her come into her own, with Matthew Rose an excellent foil, Fasolt-like in sincerity, though building later to quite a fury.

‘Eja mater, fons amoris’ quite properly offered moments where the mood lightened, not least through sheer delightfulness of orchestral playing, though the chorus’s repeated cries of ‘Fac’ were anything but light. There was some much needed choral and woodwind balm in ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’, where it was lovely to hear the organ in softer passages too. But even that came in the shadow of imposing, implacable brass. Harmoniemusik in the following chorus, ‘Tui nati vulnerati’, set the scene for as close as we were come to gambolling lyricism, in Bohemian Brahms fashion, with shades of the darker, mahogany Brahms to come in the opening of the ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’. Butt Philip’s imploring reading and the choral singing shone equally.

A venerable mainstay of musical crucifixion iconography, sharpened notes made their point in both chorus and orchestra in ‘Virgo virginum praeclara’. One certainly did not need to know or see; piercing could be heard and felt. Likewise in the throbbing pizzicato playing from lower strings, contrasting in almost sadomasochistic fashion with ravishing, bowed violins and woodwind, of the duet ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’. Butt Philip and Winters blended and contrasted well as required. In the penultimate number, the only truly solo (without chorus) movement, mezzo-soprano Marvic Monreal offered characterful contrast, especially in her lower range.

The final movement’s uneasy calm from soloists and orchestra paved the way for some truly radiant choral singing when reprising the opening material. Its ‘Amen’ still seems to me a little unsatisfactory as a conclusion to a setting of this poem; Dvořák’s more typically personal style sits a little awkwardly with its import. Ironically, if Rossini in his Stabat Mater at times adopted a jaunty, well-nigh postmodern dissociation from the poem, his writing here seems to me more congruent. There was no gainsaying the performance’s all-round excellence, though, and there are many worse things than being oneself — whether for Dvořák, Rossini, Schubert, or anyone else.

Mark Berry

1 thought on “Jakub Hrůša‘s ‘wonderful gift’ to Berlin: an outstanding account of Dvořák’s <i>Stabat Mater</i>”

  1. I only wish more rhetorical emphasis was given by soloist and chorus to the text. Special words like ‘Crucis’ were ignored. I still remember the performance of Václav Neumann, but indeed it was a performance of extreme depth and musicality Bravo.


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