Bohemian Spring – Opening Concert

Stabat Mater, Op. 58

Janice Watson (soprano)
Dagmar Pecková (mezzo-soprano)
Valentin Prolat (tenor)
Peter Mikulás (bass)

London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 March, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The LSO’s Bohemian Spring festival opened with a rare performance of a work which enjoyed wide exposure in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Dvorák’s Stabat Mater was completed in 1877, two years after his music had begun its steady course towards international renown, but at a time when the deaths of his children patently inspired soul-searching, and brought a consequent emotional deepening to his work.

The Stabat Mater is the most intimate of the major liturgical texts, and Dvorák balances the scale of his conception with restraint in the actual word-setting and in the purely expressive impact. The substantial opening section seems to draw on Mozart’s Requiem, while anticipating that of Verdi, in its forthright lamentation, ’classically’ rendered. The music’s thrice circling toward resolution, only to be brusquely denied, provides a ground-plan upon which Mary’s contemplation of the crucified Jesus is conveyed with keen emotional intensity.

Perhaps nothing in the remainder could have hoped to maintain the expressive depth of these first 20 minutes. In the event, Dvorák divides the text into a further nine movements, moving between combinations of soloists, with and without chorus. The vocal quartet at ’Quis est homo’ has a dignified pathos, while the chorus at ’Eja, mater’ has an almost operatic momentum recalling Rossini’s setting of the text a generation earlier. Thereafter, the work rather loses dramatic focus: the tenor solo at ’Fac me vere’ is little more than perfunctory, while the mezzo solo at ’Inflammatus et accensus’ has a neo-Baroque stolidity that must have sounded archaic back in 1880 (only Bruckner’s early Requiem outdoes it in this respect).

With the final movement, ’Quando corpus morietur’, the music opening up impressively in the switch to the major at ’Paradisi gloria’, and the joyous release of the crowning ’Amen’ is enhanced by the hushed orchestral postlude as the text contemplates the ultimate attainment of paradise. Dvorák’s sacred music was never to match these closing minutes in their sustained sincerity of expression.

There can be little but praise for Dagmar Pecková and (standing in at short notice for Eva Urbanová) Janice Watson, whose blissful contribution at ’Fac, ut portem’ was balm to the ears. Not so Valentin Prolat, whose nervy, tremulous tenor gave scant pleasure, while Peter Mikulás’s purposeful and idiomatic bass underwhelmed at ’Fac, un ardeat’. The London Symphony Chorus was on customary excellent form – the work’s one-time popularity with choral societies owes much to its singability – while the LSO made a good showing in music rich in passing incident. A welcome return for Jiri Belohlávek, whose persuasive, unfussy direction gave coherence to the work’s 84-minute span – sensibly performed without an interval.

If not quite a work that transcends its era, Dvorák’s Stabat Mater is an absorbing and sometimes moving statement, from a time when the reality of death could still be outweighed by the promise of life to come.

  • The next LSO/Barbican concert in Bohemian Spring is this Wednesday, 7 March at 7.30, when Jiri Belohlavek talks about and conducts Janacek’s The Fiddler’s Child and Sinfonietta in a LSO Discovery Concert
  • On Thursday, 8 March at 7.30, these two Janacek scores form part two of a concert also including Suk’s Fantastic Scherzo and Dvorak’s Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang
  • Box Office 020 7638 8891
  • Book Online
  • Colin Anderson previews Bohemian Spring

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