Dvorak’s Requiem was written in 1890, and given its first performance in 1891 – in Birmingham, with the composer conducting. Dvorak’s vocal/choral music had become hugely popular in England after a performance of his Stabat Mater in 1883, and he enjoyed massive success there.
Dvorak was invited to England in 1884, and led an orchestra of 150 and 900 singers at the Royal Albert Hall in the Stabat Mater, to huge acclaim. England commissioned new choral works from him; it was even suggested he set Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius to music! However, he declined Gerontius and suggested a Requiem instead. The resulting work was a popular success and performed to great acclaim in Birmingham, London, Leeds, and Manchester. Predictably, George Bernard Shaw wasn’t impressed, finding the whole thing ‘uninspired’…
Now, just over fifty years after its legendary Kertesz recording, Decca offer us a new Dvorak Requiem, also featuring Czech forces. It’s a very good performance; slightly inward-looking and not as obviously dramatic as the old Kertesz, but in many ways much deeper and more spiritual. On this new set, the Requiem is conducted by Jakub Hrusa, and he also conducts the Te Deum. The 10 Biblical Songs (orchestrated version) with Jan Martinik as soloist, was conducted by the late Jiri Belohlavek – on Feb 28th2017; exactly a month before he died on May 31st 2017.
The Biblical songs were written in 1894, during Dvorak’s stay in America, and they express his loneliness and homesickness. They’re beautiful songs, and Martinik is a warm lyrical soloist, well accompanied by Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic. Decca’s recordings sound clear, open, and spacious. Even in the heaviest climaxes, everything remain focused and well-balanced, and clarity is good without obvious microphone spotlighting. The big moments expand well, and do so effortlessly.
I really like the way the choir and soloists are balanced in quieter sections, such as the Pie Jesu and Agnus Dei movements towards the end of the work. You get a nice ‘hushed’ intimate response from the voices, which sound very devout and personal. One assumes Belohlavek would have conducted the Requiem and Te Deum had he not died. But Jakub Hrusa is a superb conductor, and he’s done a really excellent job. In such a warm devotional performance as this, it’s as though everyone is paying heartfelt homage to Belohlavek’s memory.
Michael Spyres (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Ailyn Pérez (soprano) – Requiem.
Jan Martiník (bass) – Biblical songs.
Svatopluk Sem (baritone), Kateřina Kněžíková (soprano) Te Deum
Prague Philharmonic choir
Jakub Hrůša and Jiří Bělohlávek*
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