Classical Music Review: New Releases

Antonin Dvorak - Stabat Mater.  Stabat Mater, Op. 58; Psalm CXLIX, Op. 79. Christin Brewer (sop.), Marietta Simpson (mezzo), John Aler (ten.), Ding Gao (bar.).  The Washington Chorus and Orchestra, Robert Shafer, conductor. Naxos CD 8.555301-02 (91'19).

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), of course, is better known as composer of instrumental music; however, his vocal music is substantial and helped to establish his international reputation.  Well suited to the native choral tradition, the Stabat Mater was a resounding success in England and Dvorak conducted several performances including one in 1884 in London, which he described as making "a tremendous impression."  Indeed, the reception of his choral music there inspired him to compose his great Requiem, premiered in Birmingham in 1891.

Like the Requiem mass, the Stabat Mater is a death-haunted work.  It derives from a Medieval Latin poem describing Mary's grief over her son's crucifixion.  The text was especially appropriate given Dvorak's circumstances at the time.  He began the work after the death of his two-day-old daughter, Josefa, in 1875.  After laying the work aside in mid-1876, he resumed work on it in late 1877 following the death of two more children:  11-month-old Rose on August 13 and three-year-old Otakar on September 8.  He finished it on November 13.

Given this background, it's not surprising that this is a profoundly moving work.  Dvorak's grief permeates but never overwhelms the music.  The opening section is magnificent.  It begins quietly, with a single note, that slowly evolves into a falling melody filled with pathos.  The orchestra gains strength, the melody increases in intensity, there is a brief switch to major tonality, a return to the minor, and the choir enters quietly.  The entire movement that follows is built on themes introduced in these opening moments.  Dvorak's orchestration and melodic inventiveness have rarely been so affecting.

Subsequent sections vary the mood, occasionally recalling the tragic feeling of the opening, but often moving in unexpected directions.  There are beautiful duet settings for the soloists, anthems for full chorus, even a baroque-like setting of the verses beginning "Inflammatus et accensus" for mezzo-soprano that looks back to the music of Handel.  As in much of Dvorak's music, he achieves a cohesive structure through a sense of emotional unity rather than through any classical architecture.  Even so, the final section, "Quando corpus morietur," recalls the opening of the work before shifting from the predominant key of B minor to a evocation of the glory of paradise ("Paradisi gloria") in D major.  It is a moment of sublime ecstasy.

Needless to say, the Washington Chorus and Orchestra under Robert Shafer are splendid as are the soloists.  Ding Gao is especially effective in the duet with the chorus beginning "Fac ut ardeat cor meum."  The disk closes with a rousing version of Dvorak's Czech-language setting of of Psalm 149.

Tony Gualtieri
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