Friday 14 April 2017

Dvořák Requiem : Jiří Bělohlávek, BBCSO Barbican

Jiří Bělohlávek
Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jiří Bělohlávek, greatly loved Conductor Laureate of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the Barbican Hall, London.  Bělohlávek has done more than anyone else to promote idiomatic Czech repertoire in the UK, bringing outstanding performances of Janáček, Smetana, Dvořák, Suk, Martinů, and others, often with singers from  the Prague National Theatre.  Over the years, his bushy mane has faded, but his passionate spirit remains undaunted   If anything, his artistic stature has grown. This Requiem, with its understated, unflashy assurance, was very moving. (Later, I thought "Humbled in the presence of God", for Requiems represent the Catholic Funeral Mass.  If you're not humbled when you're dead, what the point?)

Bělohlávek's Requiem was authentic Dvořák, sincere, honest and firm of purpose. Thus the quiet, understated introduction, from which the voices of singers rose in hushed tones: "Requiem aeternam", eternal rest.  Large forces, yet great purity.  Bělohlávek defined the underlying pulse - quiet but steady.  The pulse grew stronger, and the pace, but still the textures were clear, the woodwind flourishes well defined  against the solemn progressions.  From this,  Kateřina Kněžíková's soprano rang out beautifully, bright at first then descending to  a rich, almost mezzo lustre, preparing us for the Dies Irae, where the pulse in the orchestra quickens and explodes in dramatic angular blocks. The voices of the choir took up the alarum before once again descending into silence.

Requiems are, by nature, a series of set pieces, but Dvořák builds alternating contrasts so deftly into this work that the flow is almost seamless. The trumpets call ("Tuba mirum spargens sonum") bassoons adding depth, muffled drum strokes maintaining pulse.Soloists alternate with istruments: Catherine Wyn-Rogers. James Platt and Richard Samek, particularly impressive.  From the tumult of the Days of Wrath to the purity of the Recordare, Jesu pie, where the voices of the four soloists intertwined.  Many churches have traditions of part song. Platt, being a bass, not a baritone, sang with a gravity that reminded me of gospel styles in black communities.  In 1890. Dvořák was yet to hear gospel music in America, but the rhythms of "Inter oves, locium pratesta" prepared him intuitively to respond.  Yet Dvořák quickly returns to more conventional large-scale ensemble, with the Lacrimosa,which ended  with dramatic flourish.

In the Second Part, The BBC Symphony Chorus responded to the livelier writing with alacrity : nice interplay between women's voices and men's. Very punchy playing from the BBC SO. Yet again, Dvořák changes tack for contrast. In the Hostias, austere winds and bassoons alternated with voices, and the chorus were hushed again.  The woodwind flourishes heard earlier return, garlanding the soprano.  Amid the jubilation of the Sanctus, simplicity resurfaced when Samek sang the words "Benedictus", preparing the way for the short Pie Jesu, where the silence of "eternal rest" is gently remembered, evoked in the fragile but lovely flute figures.  The steady pulse of the beginning returned like a heartbeat, but calmer now, in peace.  The Agnus Dei, and the Requiem ended in translucent calm.

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