Vaclav Talich

Antonin Dvorák: Stabat Mater

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This recording of Dvorák's Stabat Mater is nicely packaged, with a two-color design elegantly incorporating photos of religious statuary. It's not easy to tell from the physical album, and much less so in online media, that this is a historical recording, made by the Czech Philharmonic and Chorus under conductor Václav Talich in 1952; the accompanying symphonic poem The Water Goblin, Op. 107, comes from three years earlier. Buyers should be aware of what they're getting. With that clear, they can proceed confidently; these are extraordinary readings by musicians for whom Dvorák was, in some cases, a living memory. The composer's Stabat Mater, perhaps the longest setting of that text ever written, took shape after the deaths of all three of his children within the space of three years. The work has a passionately tragic tone unlike anything else in Dvorák's oeuvre, avoiding Czech nationalist elements and looking back to his early fascination with Wagner (most evident in a long instrumental prelude) on one hand and Baroque-Classical sacred models on the other. This is a tricky combination to effectively pull off, and it is done very well indeed here, with rich-voiced female soloists in the best Central European tradition, a smoky choral sound, and an excellent sense of the work's gripping emotional intensity. Sample the finale "Quando corpus morietur" movement (CD 2, track 4); one has the feeling that contemporary conductors wouldn't have let the rage spill out as it does midway through, which is exactly what's needed. The digitally remastered sound is impressive for 1952, and the booklet notes (in German and English) sketch the acclaim Dvorák garnered in the wake of tragedy when the Stabat Mater was premiered in London. The notes have nothing to say, however, about The Water Goblin, an explicitly programmatic work that benefits from detailed annotation. Nevertheless, this double album should definitely be in the hands of Dvorák collectors and of those who love Romantic choral music in general, it's one of the few to do this work justice.

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