Rubin Institute Review: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir, Nov. 9 2014

Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater is not a Mass, but it is massive. Created after the composer’s three children died in quick succession, it is an ocean liner of a masterwork, sailing slow and heavy at no tempo faster than a funeral march. It runs about ninety minutes, with no opportunity for a break without severely lessening its emotional impact. Accordingly, it requires a top-notch crew of musicians for a successful performance. The Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir, two such crews on tour in the United States this month, teamed up to perform Stabat Mater with frank melancholy on Sunday in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

Under the steady baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, the orchestra weaved a sonic tapestry of grief, reconciliation and hope. From the piece’s first notes, sustained F sharps which seemed to drop from the sky like stones into a still pond, the orchestra was evocative and wonderfully unified, telegraphing the intent behind every phrase into their playing. The trombones delivered warm, dark consolations, and the strings equally conveyed sorrow and solace. The vocal soloists were also excellent. Notably so was tenor Jaroslav Brezina, who sang a plaintive and beautiful “Fac me vere” devoid of operatic histrionics.

The Czech Philharmonic is hard to rise above, and Stabat Mater demands its chorus does just that. Unfortunately, the Prague Philharmonic Choir was placed far behind the orchestra. This created the right ambiance when the voices needed to echo from the hill of Calvary in the first movement, but less so when the score and text called for greater immediacy.  Zellerbach’s acoustics were unforgiving for most of the work, subsuming the vocals under the orchestra’s full sound at key moments. It would have been better to see more singers on the half-empty risers. Failing that, a cathedral would have been a superior venue.

“Eja, mater” was mostly audible but as blocky as the hall’s concrete balconies, and the movement’s climactic vocal pleas to Mary were buried in horns. “Tui nati vulnerati,” the first glimmer of light after four desolate minor key movements, was almost completely lost, and “Virgo virginum praeclara” was distant even in a cappella sections.  The gates of heaven at last burst open in the final moments with a brilliant, shattering “paradisi gloria,“ breaking forth with enough power to visibly knock people back in their seats. Where was that for the preceding hour and twenty minutes? Amen!

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