The idea of setting the Stabat Mater, which is a masterful expression of loss and sorrow, to music as a sacred cantata has caught the fancy of various composers. These include Palestrina, Josquin, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini, Verdi and Penderecki. To this group, Dvořák added his voice, but only after he experienced deep personal loss. It was the deaths of three of his children, in rapid and tragic succession, that prompted Dvořák to complete his version of this devotional poem in 1877.
Dvořák's Stabat Mater has been performed often, with one of the earliest efforts conducted by Leo Janáček. This music represents a side to the composer which will be unfamiliar to the listener who only knows such works as the Carnival Overture, Slavonic Dances, or late symphonies. Gone are the energetic rhythms rooted in nationalistic passion. Dvořák's Stabat Mater is judiciously tame by comparison. It is truly as if he were praying through this music, for Dvořák's spirit groans, laments, becomes hopeful, and eventually achieves peace by prayer's end.
There are ten meditative movements to Dvořák's Stabat Mater, and I have set them out below with brief comments and approximate timings on this recording. They traditionally represent the Virgin Mary's vigil at the crucifixion of Jesus, and are sung in Latin by alternating or combining solo voices and chorus. The first four sections are dark and convey anguish, while there is a transformation to the light with the fifth movement, which continues to the work's conclusion, though the opening movement's material is briefly recapped at the end.
Stabat Mater Dolorosa: "At the cross stood the mournful mother" (20 min.)
Opens with a heartfelt song for the strings, and a solemn entry of voices after four minutes; notable for a stunning fortissimo by movement's end, produced by all vocal and orchestral forces, with the soprano voice highlighted.
Quis est homo, qui non fleret: "Is there one who would not weep" (11 min.)
Woodwinds are joined by cello and alto voice, followed by the bass voice; this section is somewhat Brahmsian in sound and lyrical feeling; it concludes restlessly yet mysteriously, the strings repeating a four note idea.
Eja, mater, fons amoris: "Mother, fountain of overflowing love" (7 min.)
A haunting repetition also characterizes this orchestral opening, which is taken up by the choir and leads to several full orchestral outbursts.
Fac, ut ardeat cor meum: "Make my soul glow and melt" (8 min.)
A brass proclamation with solo bass voice is immediately set forth; an important clarinet line is introduced and reworked, which provides for an element of faith and acceptance, lacking until this moment of the music; a further impassioned choral interjection leads to a measured bass solo.
Tui nati vulnerati: "let me share with thee his pain" (4-5 min.)
Major tonalities produce a distinct shift of mood and color; the intensity of sorrow seems to be relaxed; there is a genuine sentiment of warmth and radiance to the choral entrance; later in the movement, a sense of near elation is imparted.
Fac me vere terum flere: "Let me mingle tears with thee" (8 min.)
This is Dvořák most closely sounding like his old familiar self; the tenor voice makes a solo appearance.
Virgo virginium pmeclara: "Virgin of all virgins best" (6 min.)
A simple, devotional hymn saying "I lift my soul to thee".
Fac ut portem Christi mortem: "So Christ's death within me bearing" (5 min.)
There is a gentle opening, for soprano and then tenor; both combine into a yearning duet, calling for the redemptive love of Christ as represented by the cross.
Inflamatus et accensus: "Lest in flame I burn and perish" (7 min.)
Pointed, purposeful music, which is a song given to the alto, to request protection from judgement by the Saviour; the music is an effective mix of light and dark shades.
Quando corpus morietur: "While my body here dies I am safe in Paradise" (8 min.).
This final section begins mystically with a timpani roll, and the four solo voices enter with supplicative spirits; the music spirals upward, recalling the work's opening material, and erupts into a glorious and vigorous Amen, amidst descending scales on the trombones and shouts of victory. Here is what appears to me to be a tribute to Beethoven, and his Missa Solemnis.
So there we have it – Dvořák's work conveys his sense of deepest emptiness, and documents his personal inner struggle and hard-won hope regained through Christian poetry and devotional music. While the Dvořák Stabat Mater does not unfold with the beauty of the Pergolesi version, nor does it posses the extrovert, sharply etched drama found in Rossini's, nor is there quality of vocal writing to rival Haydn's, Dvořák's work is nonetheless moving, and it does make an impact, be it more subtle.
It would seem that a successful performance of this piece requires soloists sensitive to the text, a choir able to convey tenderness as easily as pain, and an orchestra which is adept at focusing on overall form, conveying sentiment, and maintaining phrase lines within brief movements. Interestingly, it appears that one can respond nearly identically to the composition as to the performance in a way. Helmuth Rilling's response to this piece is to keep it within the appropriate confines of expression, and not to attempt to make it into a showy work.
Rilling's vocal soloists are to be admired for their distinctive and appropriate tone and style, suited to this piece; there are no troublesome edges or vibratos. In Rilling's hands, the work resolves beautifully indeed, and we are even reminded of Wagner as the chorus, trumpets and timpani sound and the soprano's final "Amen" lofts toward heaven. As in many of their outings in the sacred choral repertoire with this conductor for the Hännsler Classic label, the Oregon Bach Festival Choir proves its mettle as a most even and controlled, yet spirited, assembly.
The one disadvantage of this set is that the music had to be spread onto two CDs, which I suppose results in a rather high price tag. This would not be such an issue if a particularly fine recording of the Dvořák Stabat Mater did not already exist on a super-budget label (Marko Munih/Ljubljana on Pilz 160104). Nevertheless, Rilling's is a superior version, better than Rhabari on Discover (also on 2 discs, which adds the Te Deum), presenting, as it does, more spirituality, not to mention orchestral and choral precision. The sound quality is excellent.
Copyright © 1996, Peter S. Murano