BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra – Jiří Bělohlávek conducts Dvořák’s Requiem

Requiem, Op.89

Kateřina Kněžíková (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Richard Samek (tenor) & James Platt (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 April, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiři BělohlávekPhotograph: Vaclav JirasekWhile Verdi’s Requiem was concurrently resounding through the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican Centre was hosting Dvořák’s much-rarer example. Premiered in England, Birmingham to be precise, in October 1891 with the composer conducting, it was a great success and numerous further performances followed. It has though fallen off the radar somewhat, albeit there are several recordings from distinguished maestros (such as Ančerl, Mariss Jansons, Kertész and Sawallisch). Choosing a conductor for a well-timed concert revival would certainly include Jiří Bělohlávek on the shortlist, no doubt in pole position; and he led a revelatory account of it.

It’s not always obvious who the composer is, for Dvořák’s Slavonic, song and dance, fauna and flora characteristics – familiar from the ‘usual suspects’ among his catalogue – are less in evidence in the Requiem; however, a consummate craftsman is obviously at work and of course the (Latin) text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead brings its own dictates, to which Dvořák, himself of this religious persuasion, responds with sensitivity, imagination and universality.

Yet there are times when Dvořák seems consciously to be avoiding what Verdi and Berlioz (Grande Messe des morts), in particular, had previously done with this content – assuming that he was aware of their respective opuses – to the extent that he does similarly (in acknowledgement) if not as personally so that some passages are pedestrian; however what can seem initially functional blossoms into something compelling. If Dvořák doesn’t compete with Verdi’s theatrical drama or Berlioz’s extravagance and idiosyncrasy – it’s fair to say that the Bohemian master knew himself – then there is much to admire and enjoy in his sincere and skilful setting.

There are thirteen sections to Dvořák’s Requiem, six of them (III to VIII) covering the ‘Dies irae’ sequence, not the most apocalyptic realisation, more a striving if mighty choral and brassy sound than the Four Horsemen, the ominous gong-strokes perhaps expected, the use of campane (edgy sleigh-bells in effect) certainly not – very effective though – and a tribute to Dvořák’s cleverness as an orchestrator, such as his minimal use of a harp for celestial purposes and his long delay before cueing a bass clarinet, its oily timbre then really catching the ear. Quite how Dvořák uses the organ must remain a doubt, for there it was, Richard Pearce sitting at it, but not a note or a pedal registered. What did come across is how ‘English’ the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ is, eloquent and Elgarian, and that there are anticipations of the latter’s Gerontius; and it seems that Dvořák had previously contemplated setting Cardinal Newman’s poem…

Clockwise from top-left:Katerina Knežíková (soprano) © Pavel HejnýCatherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano) © Paul Foster WilliamsRichard Samek (tenor) © Marketa NavratilovaJames Platt (bass) © is the key to how Dvořák approaches the Requiem text, and that first movement is intimate, agitated, potent and questioning. Operatic intensity does billow across the footlights from time to time, but it’s the pastoral aspects, the wonderful use of woodwinds (beautifully played here) and some refrains, that haunt the memory – where Dvořák, the composer of the enchanting Opus 59 orchestral Legends, comes into his own. The richly melodic and harmonically surprising ‘Offertorium’ is a standout, so too the shimmering violins in the ‘Hostias’ (and whenever he had a solo, leader Stephen Bryant was sweetly lyrical). The mellifluous ‘Sanctus’ was another highlight, equally so the plangent ‘Pie Jesu’. But this is a work that is a whole, if in two parts, so what might have been an interval disruptive to continuity and concentration wasn’t as bad as feared (more successful than the LPO’s recent Mahler 8), and the conclusion of the ‘Lacrimosa’ does suggest that need for a pause (for thought), but maybe in the Hall rather than outside of it.

Before praising the performance, the other high-point is Dvořák’s deft fugal writing, robust and exuberant, which Mendelssohn in Elijah mode would have put his name to. As to what Bělohlávek crafted with such devotion and perception, the ninety-five or so minutes of music passed by without longueurs. The BBC Symphony Chorus (prepared by Gavin Carr) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Bělohlávek is one of its laureate conductors) were outstanding in response, dedicated and characterful, and the vocal soloists – Catherine Wyn-Rogers replacing Jennifer Johnston – were all splendid, so somewhat invidious to mention Richard Samek’s ardent (Italianate) contribution and that Kateřina Kněžíková was angelic. The concluding ‘Agnus dei’ was deeply affecting: consoling, accepting … and also infinite…

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