Antonin Dvořák lost three children in two years. Having become childless by 1877, he composed a setting of the liturgical text Stabat Mater, presumably identifying with the “sorrowful Mother” of the title. Just as his mentor Brahms had a decade earlier expressed his grief at the death of his mother with A German Requiem, Dvořák created a monumental testament to his pain as well as hope in the afterlife. On November 9, the Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, gloriously voiced that musical consolation with a performance of the Stabat Mater in Zellerbach Hall.
The similarity to A German Requiem extends to the music itself. Certain sections of the Stabat Mater could be re-writings of the Requiem, albeit more tuneful and less contrapuntal ones. In both works the final movement reprises material from the first, and both begin with slow lines majestically unfolding in the orchestra.
Unfortunately, sloppy intonation in the Philharmonic’s winds (which continued through the concert) diluted the grandeur of that opening. But the hushed entrance of the Philharmonic Choir, excellently prepared by Lukáš Vasilek, saved the atmosphere, their doleful restraint and shadowy blend shrouding the hall in gloom.
Indeed, the performance’s emotional poignancy was attributable more to the choir and soloists than the orchestra. Solemn sections were eerily riveting as the choir chanted in impossible quiet like a chorus of the dead. They climbed Dvořák’s supremely effective crescendos to sparkling bursts of glory, and floated heavenward in the fourth movement. That celestial section was more sublime for being surrounded by bass Jan Martiník’s nobly suffering pronouncements of doomed passion.
Even more striking than the fourth movement was the sixth, with its Ländler-like theme. The outstanding tenor Jaroslav Březina caressed the simple melody with lovely tenderness, gifting the audience a sincere and touching moment amidst the grief of the outer movements. His feathery voice flattered the glittering tone of soprano Lucie Silkenová in their eighth movement duet. The performance sagged in the alto solo that followed, as a result of Dagmar Pecková’s jarring break between vocal registers and her muffled tone, before exploding into a magnificent conclusion in the final movement.
This concert is part of an American tour by the Czech Philharmonic with programs of almost exclusively Czech music. I wish American orchestras were equally celebratory of native composers, and left repertoire like Dvořák’s “American” New World Symphony to the Czechs.