The spirit of Jiří Bělohlávek, who died on 1st May, hangs over this new release of Dvořák Stabat Mater, though this recording was made in April 2016. The piece was one of Bělohlávek’s favourites, and was played in his honour at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s memorial to him at the Rudolfinium, Prague, last Sunday. Although Bělohlávek made at least three recordings of this cantata, this performance reflects a lifetime’s devotion to Dvořák and to the cause of Czech music. It is a monument, profound and greatly moving.
“Stabat Mater” refers to the image of Mary, contemplating Jesus, taken from the Cross. Intense anguish, yet also reverence, for Mary is meditating on life and death. The introduction to the long first movement begins with horns and trumpets, their lines ascending heavenwards. The theme “Stabat Mater” emerges in the orchestra at an early stage, before the voices join in. The pulse suggests the pulse of a human body. Yet, despite the intense anguish of grieving, the movement is serene.Almost from the outset, we have been reminded of resurrection, the triumph of eternal life over death. Thus the repeating ebb and flow in the music suggests a process of gradual movement. Structurally, the Cantata resembles a kind of sculpture, the long and important first movement providing a foundation for the nine subsequent movements, the last reflecting the first on a smaller scale. This important first movement provides the foundation for the other nine shorter movements. Dvořák, who was devout, may also have had in mind the Novena sequences of prayers said in private silence, often devoted to the Virgin Mary Thus the fundamental mood of this piece is devotional, even serene. We all know the Pietà of Michelangelo, and how the cool, pure strength of marble forms a bedrock over which fine details can be carved. Bělohlávek’s approach was sculptural, in the sense that he showed how form and structure expressed meaning. Beautiful playing from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, who have this music’s soul. Monumental, yes, but very personal and moving.
|The Rudolfinium, empty after Bělohlávek’s memorial|
These firm foundations illuminated the voices. Michael Spyres’s tenor rang like a clarion : “Stabat Mater, dolorosa”, soon joined by the womanly voices of Eri Nakamura and Elisabeth Kulmann. Jongmin Park’s bass added burnished ballast. Gradually then the quartet and choir sections give way to more defined sections for choir or choir and soloists. The Prague Philharmonic Choir are excellent – a pity that Bělohlávek could not have brought them to London, though our own BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus are superb. In the final movement, though, all voices are united, the orchestra with them. “Quando corpus morietor, Fac, ut animae donetur, Paradisi gloria!”. the chorale “Amen” a garland of glory. Yet note the ending, where solo instruments again ascend upwards, the last “Amen” glowing with warmth.
Please see my tribute to Bělohlávek here with lots of links.