Dedicated Dvorák fans, particularly devotees of his Stabat Mater, will have to hear this recording of the work by Laurence Equilbey and the choral group Accentus. Heretofore, only the 1877 version of the Stabat Mater was known and performed, but scholars recently discovered an earlier version from 1876 that differs in two significant ways from the later version. First, it's in seven movements rather than ten, Dvorák having added the three central movements the following year, and second, it's scored for the same four soloists and mixed chorus, but accompanied here not by the later versions' full orchestra but instead by a solo piano.
As this performances shows, the 1876 version was no trial run for the 1877 version, but a fully formed work. Because of the changes in tone and scale from orchestra to piano, the earlier version is more lyrical, more inward, even more intimate than the latter. Listeners long familiar with the orchestral version might miss its gravity and colors, but they may yet be won over by this version's conspicuous merits: the delicate tenderness of the solo quartet with piano in "Quis est homo" and especially the sweetly sorrowful alto plus piano in "Inflammatus et accensus."
As for the performance itself, Equilbey does a fine job of balancing her forces so that every musical and emotional nuance is audible. As significantly, she keeps the music moving despite its lugubrious tempo markings by never dragging or lingering. Accentus, a 38-voice choir, lacks the weight of a larger choir, but they more than compensate with their precise articulation, clear diction, and warm blend. The vocal soloists are all first-rate, particularly lush-toned alto Renata Pokupic, and while Brigitte Engerer is no Czech Philharmonic, she is a superb pianist, an accomplished musician, and a terrific accompanist. The acoustic created by producer Jean Pierre Loisil is both transparent and present, a rare and wonderful combination.