Powerful performances of Bruckner and Szymanowski from Dausgaard and the Warsaw Philharmonic

PolandPoland Bruckner, Szymanowski: Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (soprano), Ewa Wolak (alto), Szymon Mechliński (baritone), Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir (chorus master: Bartosz Michałowski) / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor). Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, 17.5.2024. (RP)

Thomas Dausgaard (conductor) © DELUGA.art

Bruckner – ‘Locus iste’, Symphony No.3 in D minor (ver. 1873)
SzymanowskiStabat Mater Op.53

This concert by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under the baton of Thomas Dausgaard was in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Anton Bruckner’s birth on 4 September 1824. During the intermission, a man sitting in front of me told me that Bruckner’s music is seldom heard in Warsaw. I will have to take his word on that, but for an American visitor to Poland, the draw was the opportunity to hear Karel Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater in live performance. Hopefully, that man felt as elated as I did after this fine concert.

The program opened with the Choir singing one of Bruckner’s most famous motets, ‘Locus iste’. Composed in 1869, the motet is a setting of ‘Locus iste a Deo factus est’, a Latin text that translates to ‘This place was made by God’. Bruckner wrote the piece for the dedication of a chapel in the cathedral of Linz, Austria, where he had previously worked as organist.

The motet is sung by choruses around the world, but it is rare to hear it performed by an ensemble as fine as this one. Upper voices produced shimmering sounds, but it was the impressive depth and richness of the basses that anchored the performance. For all the changes in texture and volume in the brief piece, Dausgaard led a reading that was as seamless and flowing as it was solemn and beautiful.

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater (Latin for ‘the mother was standing’) is considered one of the great sacred choral works of the twentieth century. Scored for soprano, alto and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, it is a setting of Józef Jankowski’s translation into Polish of the ancient Latin hymn that tells of the Virgin Mary’s suffering at the crucifixion of her son, Jesus Christ.

Szymanowski’s setting of the six sorrowful hymns never loses its essential religious character, which he renders in intriguing musical textures and colors. It premiered in Warsaw in 1929, and American audiences heard it for the first time two years later at Carnegie Hall. Nelson Eddy, who would go on to become a Hollywood star, was the baritone soloist.

Soprano Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk sang Mary’s opening lament with sincerity and eloquence, supported by ethereal singing from the women of the Choir. The composer considered the melody for soprano soloist in the sixth section to be the most beautiful that he had ever composed, and Kubas-Kruk’s lovely voice did it full justice.

In the third hymn, a prayer desiring that the supplicant can share in the Virgin Mary’s pain and humiliation, alto Ewa Wolak displayed her formidable voice with its wonderful cavernous lower range. In their duets, Kubas-Kruk and Wolak’s voices blended perfectly, but there a special thrill in listening to such a rare alto voice sing alone.

Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (soprano), Ewa Wolak (alto), Szymon Mechliński (baritone), Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra © DELUGA.art

Szymanowski instilled musical and dramatic symmetry into the Stabat Mater by giving the baritone soloist dramatic solos in the second and fifth movements. In the former, baritone Szymon Mechliński rebuked the callous passersby who were oblivious to the woman’s suffering and sorrow in a thunderous voice that rode easily above the equally impressive sounds produced en masse by the chorus and orchestra. Later, he sang with equal force but more mystery in a moving plea to share in Christ’s agony.

The Choir was resplendent throughout, producing a polished and rich sound capable of expressing emotion at any dynamic level. The a cappella singing in the prayer-like fourth movement, and then again at the end of the work, was notable for its beauty, simplicity and fervor. At full force, they produced torrents of sound with equal ease and emotional impact.

With his Third Symphony, Bruckner hoped to break new ground in the genre. It was one of two symphonies that he showed to Richard Wagner with the offer of dedicating one to him. Having forgotten which one Wagner thought worthy of the honor, Bruckner had to ask again. Wagner indicated it was the one where the trumpet plays the opening theme.

The 1873 premiere was a disaster, and Bruckner revised the work repeatedly, leaving no indication as to which version was definitive. Dausgaard programmed the lengthier original version for this concert, with its many quotes from Wagner’s operas, most notably Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre. With a performance such as this one, it is hard to imagine what all the fuss was about when the work was new.

Dausgaard instilled drama into it from the start. As the solo trumpet played in the first movement, Gemässigt, misterioso, there was an air of tension being released in a glorious outburst of sound. The softer, transparent passages were played with great depth of feeling, while the crescendos were relentless in their drive and energy, yet always maintaining an air of majesty.

The Adagio: Feirlich showed Bruckner at his most heartfelt and human. In the lyrical passages, the string playing was particularly lovely. The Scherzo was a wonderful mix of grand music made by the brass and buoyant, graceful dances. Humor coursed through the entire movement.

Bruckner tinkered repeatedly with the concluding Finale: allegro, but the original version is the most coherent and, in Dausgaard’s reading, a spectacular ending to the work. Bruckner combined the strains of a polka with a solemn chorale to represent both the humor and happiness that exist in the world, as well as the sadness and pain.

From the downbeat, the Finale took flight propelled by a wonderful sense of Schwung. The momentum could be briefly interrupted by the sonorous playing of the horns in the hymn-like passages, but it never faltered. The frequent pauses in the score, which irked listeners so in Bruckner’s day, provided moments for reflection as well as to catch one’s breath.

The performance ended in furious bowing from the strings, culminating in a blazing release of tension and emotion. And with that, the audience leapt to its feet and cheered.

Rick Perdian

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