NSO and Washington Chorus offer deeply felt performance of Dvorak’s ‘Stabat Mater’

March 23, 2012

Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra have run quite a marathon this month.

They have performed a slew of concerts for the Kennedy Center’s festival celebrating the music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna. It all culminated in their Thursday night performance of Antonin Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” Op. 58.

The NSO’s three main contributions to the festival have all featured vocal works, with the Dvorak following two operas (“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Fidelio,” representing Budapest and Vienna, respectively). Critic Kurt Honolka has called Dvorak’s choral masterpiece “the first great sacred work in Czech music,” making it quite an appropriate choice to represent Prague. While the other works had not been heard since the 1970s, the NSO last performed the “Stabat Mater” as recently as 1992, when it was new to the orchestra.

Dvorak remained a fervent Catholic all his life, holding “firmly to his unquestioning religious faith,” in the words of Dvorak scholar John Clapham. He did so even when, in 1876 and 1877, he and his wife lost all three of their young children born up to that time to illness and accident.

It is an unbearable tragedy even to contemplate, and Dvorak turned in response to the Latin words of a medieval sequence, a liturgical chant that has been set many times in all manner of musical styles. The intensely personal text focuses on the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the passion and death of her Son, calling upon Mary to help the faithful share in her maternal pain and, by doing so, be lifted up with her to paradise. The anguish found in the score makes quite clear the depth of the composer’s desolation and his desire to join it to the suffering of Mary.

Although the high point of the three NSO festival concerts was probably last week’s “Fidelio,” Thursday’s was a deeply felt performance, with solid and beautiful contributions from soloists, choir and orchestra. The piece opens with an extended lament for chorus, introduced by an ostinato F-sharp pulsating through the orchestra in all octaves, hanging in the air and refusing to commit to any key. The tonal ambiguity is not made much clearer when the first harmony is finally heard, a descending series of half-steps that seems to depict the sound of keening.

Dvorak had not yet made his first discoveries of how to incorporate folk themes into his music, so the influences here are mostly earlier choral pieces by Bach, Handel, and Mozart. Even so, the combination of this sense of harmonic adventure with more traditional elements reminds us again that Dvorak, as Clapham once put it, “was neither a conservative nor a radical.”

The quartet of vocal soloists all shone in solo moments, but also made an elegantly balanced ensemble, careful not to overpower one another. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms was a lambent presence, floating her high notes gracefully more than forcefully. Contralto Nathalie Stutzmann overdid her initial consonants slightly, and her tendency toward little scoops and straight tone on long notes was fussy, but she had a regal tone, especially at the bottom. Tenor Steve Davislim had the sweetness needed for the exposed solo “Fac me vere tecum flere,” and enough ping on the heroic side to be heard.

And Turkish bass-baritone Burak Bilgili, who will be singing the role of Zaccaria in next month’s “Nabucco” at Washington National Opera, stepped in late in the game to replace the ailing Robert Holl, and he had the gravitas at both top and bottom for the part. When he seemed a little uncertain, rushing ahead a few times, Eschenbach was right there to keep the orchestra with him.

Top honors vocally, however, go to the amassed voices of the Washington Chorus, which had a beautifully tuned and balanced sound, due at least partially to standing in mixed formation. Here is music that was made for a chorus of this size. Dvorak wrote home to his friend about leading more than a thousand musicians at a performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the Washington Chorus filled the Concert Hall with sound — on the iterated howls of “Fac!” in the “Eia mater” movement, for example — yet also brought remarkable suavity to the many more delicate passages, such as the legato of “Tui nati vulnerati.”

That ostinato F-sharp returns in the final movement, resolved finally to a hymnlike statement, sung unaccompanied. The piece finally dissolved into an evanescent D-major chord that faded away to silence.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday night.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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