Antonín Dvorák's Stabat Mater, Op. 58, truly merits the adjective "tragic"; it was written after the deaths of two of the composer's children in succession, and his grief rolled out in great, Verdian waves. There are several strong recordings on the market, including an earlier one by conductor Jiří Bělohlávek himself, but for the combination of deep feeling, technical mastery from musicians and singers who have spent their lives getting to know the score, and soloists who not only sound beautiful but are seamlessly integrated into the flow, this Decca release may be the king of them all. To what extent was the strength of the performance motivated by Bělohlávek's likely fatal illness (he died days after the album entered the top levels of classical charts in the spring of 2017)? It's hard to say, although he also delivered top-notch performances of Dvorák's Requiem in his last days. The members of the Prague Philharmonic Choir sing their hearts out in the gigantic, shattering opening chorus, which has rarely if ever had such a mixture of the impassioned and the perfectly controlled. Sample the chorus "Virgo virginium praeclara" to hear the magically suspended quality Bělohlávek brings out of the singers in lightly accompanied passages.
Antonín Dvorák's Stabat Mater, Op. 58, written in the aftermath of the deaths of three of his children, is a sober and powerful work, inexplicably neglected and unlike any other work of choral music from the 19th century. Perhaps most performances don't capture its full weight, but this live recording from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, does so. There are many deep pleasures here. The orchestra's choir is extraordinary: rich yet without a hint of wobble and utterly clear in its sense of the text. Jansons keeps things at a deliberate pace that lets the music breathe and the currents of personal experience rise to the surface. The soloists, none terribly well known, are fine in their individual numbers, but absolutely transcendent in ensembles, nowhere more so that in the sublime "Quando corpus morietur" finale (track 10); there are a couple of other strong recordings of this work, but it seems likely that no one has ever matched this conclusion. The live recording from the Herkulessaal in Munich is impressively transparent and faithful to the spontaneity of the event. A superb Dvorák release.
Antonín Dvorak’s daughter Josefa died on 21 September 1875. In response to this bereavement, Dvorak composed the initial version of his Stabat Mater – for four soloists, choir, and piano – between 19 February and 7 May 1876. He then set the work aside without orchestrating it. Soon after this, he lost his other two children in the space of a few weeks, his daughter Ružena on 13 August and his son Otokar on 8 September 1877. At this point he returned to the manuscript abandoned the previous sacred music and established him notably in Great Britain, where his reputation was to remain firm for the rest of his life.
Dvořák’s Stabat Mater was a work brought about by personal tragedy of almost incomprehensible proportions, after the composer lost all three of his then living children. A setting of the mediaeval Latin prayer to the bereaved mother of the crucified Christ, it was to become both a work of mourning and a work of healing. The shifts of mood from grief and near despair to hope and faith run throughout the work, before the glory and solace of the final Amen. Neeme Järvi conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in this live concert recording.
Like Mozart writing his Requiem, this live recording of Dvorak's Stabat Mater has taken on great significance being released in the weeks following the death at 55 of the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli in May 2001.
The Dvorak Stabat Mater turned out to be the final recording made by the beloved dean of American choral directors, Robert Shaw, who taped it in Atlanta in November 1998, two months before his death, at 82.
In an interview with NPR's Martin Goldsmith that fills out the second disc of the Telarc set, Shaw describes the Stabat Mater as "a work of extraordinary vitality and almost mystical communication," qualities fully captured by his deeply felt performance. (Chicago Tribune)