Although I’m a “choral person”, I’m not a big fan of late 19th-century oratorios: too big, too serious, too drenched in grand and glorious effects (those drippy, dense, overwrought, ear-clogging harmonies!), not to mention that these things were often performed with choruses of hundreds and orchestras to match. You might as well just launch a raft of fireworks and let the good times roll. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but not far off. But as soon as you would like to just conveniently dismiss such works all in a flip of the hand, you hear something like Dvorák’s Svatá Ludmila (Saint Ludmila) and, darn it, you have to revise everything you thought you believed.
ThisRead more oratorio, from 1886, written for the Leeds Festival in England, is a work that will just consume the unsuspecting listener in its sheer loveliness, especially in the multitude of gorgeous choral movements, but also in the numerous arias, all of which are beautifully written and expertly realized in this first-rate recording. As you listen you can’t help at times thinking “Brahms”, mostly in the orchestration, but occasionally in the biggest, most dramatic choral sections. You may not think about it, but there’s a genius composer at work here, one who knows how to organize and develop a dramatic idea and set it loose to unfold seamlessly, telling its story without catch or awkward pause or musical inconsistency.
The story of course is of Ludmila, the patron saint of Bohemia, and in Dvorák’s setting focuses on her momentous conversion to Christianity. There are three scenes: in the courtyard of M?lník Castle; in the Beroun forests; and in Velehrad Cathedral. It impresses as operatic in design (indeed attempts have been made to stage the work), but it ultimately does best in concert form, shorn, as it is here, of some of its two-hour-plus original length (Naxos gives us a well-selected, satisfying hour and 41 minutes). If you’re a “choral person” but like me are a bit shy of big, unfamiliar “romantic” works, be not afraid. This piece, truly one of Dvorák’s finest large-scale works (and only oratorio), will please you, especially this performance, with its excellent chorus and uniformly superb vocal soloists (particular kudos to soprano Adriana Kohútková and bass Peter Mikuláš). An easy and enthusiastic recommendation.