The “Stabat mater” by the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorák, well-known in its later orchestral version, was initially composed with piano accompaniment. This rarely-heard original version has now been recorded for BR-KLASSIK, featuring the excellent Bavarian Radio Chorus under the direction of Howard Arman, and accompanied by Julius Drake on the piano.
The young Dvorák was a well-studied and experienced church musician. Having graduated from the organ school in Prague, he spent three pious years as an organist in the city’s St. Adalbert’s Church. The search for a “truly sacred music” preoccupied him from the very start. The contemporary Caecilian Movement for church music reform led him, like many of his colleagues, to re-examine the Palestrina style, which represented a return to the more modest, less ostentatious and yet at the same time contrapuntally ingenious church music of a previous epoch. He duly composed a ”Stabat mater” without orchestral splendour and with a simple piano accompaniment. Shortly before Dvorák wrote down this first version of his ”Stabat mater” between February 19 and May 7, 1876, a heavy blow had struck the young family. On December 19, 1875, his daughter Josefa died two days after she was born. Dvorák did not set all the verses of the hymn to music, and chose an ensemble of four soloists, a choir and a piano. This original version from the spring of 1876, with its seven-movement structure, is not a fragment, draft or piano reduction but an independent and self-contained work in its own right. In the autumn of 1877, when he composed the missing four verses and scored his ”Stabat mater” for a large orchestra, he effectively created a new and different work.
Dvořák may have had a full orchestral canvas in mind for the original version, but he wrote out a fully notated piano part which is beautifully modulated here by Julius Drake. Placed forwards in the mix, he brings a Schubertian lilt to the underlying rhythm of ‘Eja mater’ that no performance of the bass-heavy orchestral version can emulate. The excellent Bavarian Radio Chorus are encouraged to phrase accordingly, and the advantages of a compact, professional chorus in a work usually belonging to the choral-society tradition make themselves felt throughout.
The soloists make a well-matched team slightly let down by an unduly Italianate tenor. Best of them are Gerhild Romberger, a firm and consoling presence in the ‘Inflammatus’, and Tareq Nazmi, sensitively shading his long and rhetorical scena in ‘Fac ut ardeat’. In these respects and most others, the new recording surpasses its only rival on record, made a decade ago in a much drier acoustic by Accentus and Laurence Equilbey, with Drake’s pianism the outstanding advantage.