Czech maestro Jiří Bělohlávek left behind an important recorded legacy crowned by an impassioned account of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater with the Czech Philharmonic made shortly before he succumbed to cancer in May 2017. Around the same time he also recorded Dvořák’s Biblical Songs with bass Jan Martiník. These songs form the centrepiece of this album, flanked by the large-scale Requiem and Te Deum conducted by Bělohlávek’s student, Jakub Hrůša, who now enjoys a successful international career and has visited Australia several times in recent years.
Like the great Karel Ančerl before him, Hrůša delivers an unflagging and utterly committed account of the Requiem. This work is not without its detractors. It may not rival the Verdi or Berlioz settings, nor was it born out of the same tragic circumstances as his Stabat Mater, but Dvořák still delivers a work with appealing variety and plenty of interest for its performers. The chorus has a key role, singing in all but one of the work’s 13 movements. Prepared by chorusmaster Lukáš Vasilek, the Prague Philharmonic sings with enviable energy; the tenors apparently having no fear of the composer’s high-lying writing. Whether in the quiet close of the Lacrymosa, the drama of the Confutatis or the almost jolly Quam olim Abrahae of the Offertorium, the singers remain responsive and well blended.
Given the great deal of ensemble writing, Hrůša is fortunate to have a neatly matched group of soloists. Tenor Michael Spyres, who also graced Bělohlávek’s Stabat Mater, is an unalloyed delight, putting his honeyed tone at the service of the text. Martiník brings both power and warmth while soprano Ailyn Pérez and mezzo Christianne Stotijn bring sensitive richness to the mix. Hrůša is a master of balance; not only happy to revel in operatic climaxes such as that at the end of the Agnus Dei, but also content to let the music have space where necessary.
Martiník gives each of the short Biblical Songs plenty of colour and has in Bělohlávek an empathetic accompanist, who also draws a rich diversity of timbre from the orchestra. The popular setting of Psalm 23 has a rustic simplicity while the concluding treatment of Psalm 98 strikes a joyful note.
Rambunctious timpani herald the exultant mood of the Te Deum, which chorus and orchestra perform with unbridled enthusiasm, as though national pride depended upon it. Soprano Kateřina Kněžiková and baritone Svatopluk Sem provide some lyrical and dramatic counterpoint to the prevailing festal mood. Once again, there is never any doubt that Hrůša has everything under control.
This is a wonderful compendium of Dvořák’s vocal works in full, clear sound that will repay repeated listening.
Works: Requiem, Biblical Songs, Te Deum
Performers: Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic/Jakub Hrůša, Jiří Bělohlávek
Label: Decca 4850509 (2CD)