Like encountering some extraordinary Pietà, listening to Dvořák’s grandiose evocation of Mary at the foot of the Cross leaves a lasting impression on the imagination. Written at a time when the composer was finally gaining recognition, it was to be the best and the worst of times. To have lost one child (as Dvořák did in 1875) was tragedy enough, but to lose his remaining two children the following year would have been more than most parents could bear.
The surging opening of the Stabat Mater in particular witnesses to this deep grief. Bělohlávek and his forces harness all of this turbulent emotion, creating towering climaxes that immerse the listener in the crucifixion drama. Lasting nearly 20 minutes, the sonata-form first movement signals Dvořák’s intent to create a work in which his skills as symphonist, melodist, nationalist and believer are all given potent expression.
To a large extent Dvořák succeeds in this artistic quest. The nine shorter, succeeding movements are creatively varied. After the Quis est homo in which we hear the well balanced solo quartet at close quarters, the pulsing, choral Eja Mater, fons amoris ushers one of the most striking movements of the work, Fac, ut ardeat. Here South Korean bass Jongmin Park displays an impressive emotional range in the midst of Dvorˇák’s wayward harmonies and touching exchanges with the female chorus.
Dvořák’s waltzing Tui nati vulnerati could verge on the irreverent to modern ears but Michael Spyres’ light, clear tenor restores the devotional mood in Fac me vere. Spyres is nicely complemented by soprano, Eri Nakamura in the duet Fac, ut portem. Mezzo Elisabeth Kulman brings great presence to the baroque-inspired Inflammatus, ably conjuring up the dread of judgement day.
Dvořák clearly was in two minds as to how to end this huge work. Should there be a majestic representation of the glory of paradise or should the music fade away? He hedges his bets, but the cumulative effect is soul-stirring.
This great monument of Czech music, shot through with grandeur and grief, has sadly become a valedictory monument to the career of the great Czech conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek, who lost his battle with cancer on May 31. The Czech Philharmonic, with which Bělohlávek had a long association, plays with a distinctive warmth and empathy throughout. This moving performance is a fitting tribute to their maestro.