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Antonin Dvorak: Requiem, Op. 89; Johannes Brahms: Vier erste Gesänge, Op. 121
22 Jun 2008

Choral Music by Dvořák and Brahms

Among the choral music of Anton [Antonin] Dvorak, the familiar Stabat Mater, Op. 58, is known to modern audiences through various live performances and recordings.

Antonin Dvorak: Requiem, Op. 89; Johannes Brahms: Vier erste Gesänge, Op. 121

Mechthild Bach, soprano, Stefanie Irányi, alto, Markus Schäfer, tenor, Klaus Mertens, bass. Kantorei der Schlosskirch Weilburg, Capella Weilburgensis, Doris Hegel, conductor

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Yet his Requiem, Op. 89, which received its premiere in 1891, is an equally find work that deserves a similar kind of popularity. While stated explicitly with reference to Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem all Requiems are, ultimately for the living, and the approach each composer has taken in setting the text of this rite also reflects something of the intended audience of the piece.

Composers in the nineteenth century approached the Requiem Mass in various ways, from the dramatic setting by Berlioz to the more personal expression of the sentiments of the rite by Brahms in his Deutsches Requiem. Dvorak treated the Requiem in a more conventional manner by using the text of the Requiem Mass associated with the Catholic liturgy, an idiom that should be familiar to the audience he addressed. While it bows to convention, such adherence to tradition should not suggest anything mundane. On the contrary, Dvorak’s setting bears attention for the way in which he expressed this text in one of the finer scores of his artistic maturity. A work for four vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, it is a powerful large-scale work that brings to mind some of the composer’s symphonic music, while simultaneously relying on choral sonorities for some of its more poignant effects. As occurs in Dvorak’s later symphonies, the interplay of textures is an important aspect of the score, which is as colorful as some of the composer’s operas.

The second section, the Gradual in which the text reiterates the prayer for peace (“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, / Et lux perpetua luceat eis. / In memoria aeterna erit justis / ab auditione mala non timebit.”) the juxtaposition of the soprano solo with the chorus is memorable, especially in the context of the sometimes transparent orchestration. Likewise, the Dies irae that follows involves the traditional melodic formulation associated with the chant and also the exploits the thunderous sound of percussion and brass. In contrast to the relentless trumpets of Verdi’s well-known Requiem, the softer, more subdued sonorities that Dvorak used in his setting create a different, more intimate effect. In contrast to the terrors at the prospect of divine judgment, the listener gains a sense of consolation and the prospect of eternal peace. In these and other ways, Dvorak approached the Requiem with the same sense for building on tradition as he did in his symphonic works. The result is a score that deserves to be heard more often, not only on recordings, but also in live performances.

This recording of Dvorak’s Requiem preserves a performance given on 13 November 2005 at a concert given in the memory of Grand Duke Adolf of Luxemburg (also Duke of Nassau), and the quality of the effort is apparent from the outset. The solo parts are sung by Mechthild Bach (soprano), Stefanie Irányi (alto), Markus Schäfer (tenor), and Klaus Mertens (bass). Mertens is, perhaps, the most familiar soloist, also performs Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge on this recording. He is balanced well by Schäfer, whose ringing sound captures well the solo line for the tenor. Mechthild Bach brings some fine touches to the soprano part, which involves some sustained passages that demand an accomplished winder. Likewise, Stefanie Iránji works well with Bach and other soloists when the concertato-like sonorities contrast the full chorus throughout much of the work.

Even with a less extensive discography than that which exists for the Stabat Mater, Dvorak’s Requiem is available in several fine performances, and this particular performance can be counted among the notable ones. The sound on this particular Hänssler recording is, perhaps, a bit close and, as a result, does not always allow for the full sonorities of chorus or the combined chorus and orchestra to have the ambiance that would emerge in the actual hall. While not completely dry, it lacks the resonance one would associate with Dvorak. Even so, the sound is quite crisp and captures well the clearly articulated texts. The diction of the soloists is matched by the similarly precise entrances of the entire chorus, which Doris Hagel leads masterfully.

This recording includes on the second disc a performance of Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge by Klaus Mertens. Since the length of Dvorak’s Requiem forces a recording onto two CDs, the inclusion of this late work by Brahms is quite welcome, especially since it involves Mertens, whose performance in Dvorak’s Requiem is impressive. A cycle of settings for solo voice, the four songs have texts from the Old and New Testament that deal, in a sense, with the last things, that is, those enduring points of contemplation regarding existence, love, and salvation. Neither a Requiem, per se, nor funereal in tone, the Vier ernste Gesänge from 1896, the year before its composer died, are nonetheless reflective in nature, and Mertens’ interpretation captures that sense well. His resonant voice and fine diction are essential to the quality of this recording.

James L. Zychowicz

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