Notes and Editorial Reviews
Mass in D
4 Sacred Songs
By the Waters of Babylon
Wolfgang Schäfer, cond; Edgar Krapp (org);
Dorothea Röschmann (sop);
Ingeborg Danz (alt);
Christian Elsner (ten);
ARS MUSICI 232158 (75:33
Text and Translation)
Dvo?ák’s lovely Mass is seldom heard in concert performances, which is a great pity. There are probably two related reasons for this. First, as James H. North rightly noted in a review of another recording in
28:2, “This Mass is a personal, intimate confession, at home only in a church” and not the secular recital hall; in scale it is akin to Fauré’s Requiem and the antipode of Beethoven’s
, or even the composer’s own Requiem and
. Second, it is a work of deceptive, seemingly childlike, simplicity, with folk-song-like melodies and little in the way of such devices as fugue or counterpoint to entice the erudite musical connoisseur. The composer wrote it not only to express his own joyous and uncomplicated pietistic faith (one held unshaken through the tragedies of the deaths in infancy of three of his nine children), but also as music that could be sung by ordinary church choirs rather than professional ensembles.
However, appearances—aural as well as visual—can be deceiving; this is one of those small, jewel-like masterpieces that only a composer of Dvo?ák’s genius, skill, and unpretentious temperament could create. The original chamber-choir version with organ accompaniment performed here was composed in 1887 at the behest of Josef Hlávka, the founder of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences, for the dedication of a chapel on his estate in Luzany. Dvo?ák rescored it for full choir and orchestra in 1892 at his publisher’s request, but the enlarged version is unsatisfactory, being frequently at odds with its confiding tone and artless directness (though the recent Polyanksy recording on Chandos goes much further than any predecessors in remedying those problems).
As with many Mass settings, the choir is the primary performer; the solo quartet makes brief appearances only in the “Christe eleison” section of the Kyrie, the central section “Domine Fili unigenite” of the Gloria, at the phrase “ex incarnatus est” in the Credo, and the beginning of the Agnus Dei. The opening Kyrie is set to a gentle, rocking theme in 3/4 time that is almost like a nursery tune. The Gloria, in a contrasting duple meter, unexpectedly brings to mind in its more declamatory moments Bruckner’s Te Deum. Like the Kyrie, the Credo is again cast in 3/4 time to signify the Trinity; its opening flowing, lyrical melody gives way to a minor key section (punctuated with tritone discords) for the “Crucifixus,” but returns triumphantly at the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” to create a radiantly joyous conclusion that for me is the high point of the entire work. The opening of the Sanctus is similarly joyful, with choral proclamations ringing out like a pealing of bells, before taking a more quiet and mystical turn at the Benedictus, with the Agnus Dei bringing the work to a tenderly penitential conclusion.
Four Sacred Songs
, op. 19, are early works, penned during 1877–79 for two of the composer’s friends, baritone Alois Göbl and his alto wife (whose first name I cannot locate). The first three (
Ave Maria, Hymnus et Laudes
Ave Maris Stella
) are set for alto; the fourth (
) for alto and baritone. Like the Mass, they are direct, uncomplicated, and immediately engaging; the soloists here are eminently satisfactory.
In his glowing recommendation of a scarce and hard-to-obtain Czech recording made by a 13-member choir in the Luzany chapel for the Nibiru label, North again rightly remarked, “Past recordings have seldom captured its delicate charm; in my experience, only an ECM disc by the Prague Chamber Choir under Josef Pancík has done the piece justice,” and criticized the Supraphon recording with the Prague Philharmonic (with the identical contents as this CD) as “cold and dry by comparison.” I have not heard the Nibiru issue, but this recording, originally released in 1993, is the only other one that I would place on the same level of excellence with the ECM release. I prefer the coupling on this CD, and it is also less expensive, but at present is not widely available domestically (listed at Amazon but not at ArkivMusic or other CD retailers). The choir sings with sweetness, transparency, and lightness, qualities all too frequently lacking in competing versions. (Various renditions with British church choirs employ boy sopranos, which sound horribly wrong in this work.) Renowned organist Edgar Krapp provides a deftly supportive accompaniment; the recorded acoustic is clear and does not offend with undue reverberation. My one reservation is that the solo quartet, mostly stellar on paper, is a bit off-form; both Dorothea Röschmann and Ingeborg Danz, normally exquisite singers, have occasional notes with surprisingly unfocused vibrato, whereas the relatively unknown Johannes Mannov is the consistently superior soloist. Texts are provided in Latin and German only, though one can readily find English versions elsewhere. The Nibiru CD can now also be ordered (albeit at a premium price) from Crochet and MDT in the U.K. However, for those with more slender wallets, the present mid-price release is a sound investment and warmly recommended.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Mass in D major, Op. 86/B 153 by Antonín Dvorák
Johannes Mannov (),
Dorothea Röschmann (),
Edgar Krapp (Organ),
Christian Elsner (),
Ingeborg Danz (Alto)
Written: 1887; Bohemia
Date of Recording: 03/1993
Venue: Hessischer Rundfunk, Sendesaal
Length: 39 Minutes 30 Secs.
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