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Heaven and Hell without Tears

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/25/2024 -  
Antonín Dvorák: Requiem, Op.89
Leah Hawkins (Soprano), Lindsay Ammann (Mezzo-soprano), Joshua Blue (Tenor), Stefan Eggerstrom (Bass)
Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell (Choral Director), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Conductor, Music Director)

L. Hawkins/S. Eggerstrom

When I hear Dvorák’s weird chords on muted cornets, with a gruesome ding on the tamtam, I feel exactly as I should be if he held up a skull with a lighted candle to awe me. But the public loves everything connected with a funeral.
George Bernard Shaw, on Dvorák’s Requiem

I’m just an ordinary composer. I compose only for my own pleasure.
Antonin Dvořák

Both Leon Botstein and program annotator Professor Michael Beckerman went to great lengths regretting the rarity performances of Antonin Dvorák’s Requiem. But to this listener, the reason is quite apparent. It didn’t sound like “our” Dvorák.

Yes, it was well-constructed, had many lovely passages, and James Bagwell made certain that the Bard Festival Chorale sung with mighty force throughout. Add to that four soloists, the only error of which was their grouping with the Chorale. But their solos were as immaculate as Leon Botstein’s conducting.

Something, though, was wrong. Dvorák’s Stabat Mater came from the broken heart, written after the death of his two‑year‑old daughter. And while the words followed the Medieval poem, the music came from the innermost Dvorák, and it showed.

So one can take a look at the four most famous requiems. Mozart of course cheated. (Like all his music, he simply pleaded with the Divine Spirit to send down the notes, and he merely wrote them down.) Berlioz created another extravaganza to add to his other extravaganzas. Brahms? The acknowledged agnostic composed a series of his beloved lieder poems for choruses.

As for Verdi, once criticized for too operatic an Requiem, somebody said that opera was his religion.

So onto Dvorák. Bucolic, nostalgic, terpsichorean, Czech. This Requiem followed the words, yet one felt, with his chthonic trombones, his dark repeated themes, his oh so serious choruses that we had a kind of monochromatic work. Not a single note close to Brahms’ opening, or the huge Verdi fugues. It was prayerful, sober, a commissioned work (the Birmingham Orchestra) which he conducted in America.

Yet so earnest was this composition, one could admire the performance and have the greatest respect for the music. That dark orchestral opening was a dark introduction to the so intense choral opening begging for mercy.

One cannot avoid thinking of the mighty terror of Verdi and Berlioz in the Dies Irae and Tuba mirum, Dvorák’s own fear of the Hereafter was not so much sheer physical fright as agitation. We did not feel those shivers in more dramatic Requiems, but a sort of discomfort.

So in more of the heavenly choruses–the Pie Jesu and the 15th Century style Agnus Dei–, we heard those lovely sounds for which Dvorák in his chamber music was so adept.

L. Ammann/J. Blue

I cannot say enough about the four soloists. While I would have like to see them at the front of the stage, their work with the chorus in the Hostias and Recordare was more than impressive. Both soprano Leah Hawkins and tenor Joshua Blue easily took Dvorák’s high ranges, while Lindsay Ammann and Stefan Eggerstrom gave equal light to even the darkest passages.

As always, one must give credit for Leon Botstein for digging up this little‑known near treasure. (Though he gives credit for the discovery to the wonderful Rudolf Firkusný.) If one feels less physical emotion, one knows here a composer who–more rare of all–felt humility with his genius. And perhaps this is how one should listen to the Master’s minor masterpiece.

Harry Rolnick



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