Sublime Dolor

Dec 22, 1999 at 12:00 am

The setting of Mary's suffering at the foot of the cross, "Stabat Mater," was written anonymously during the Middle Ages, and composers from Palestrina to Poulenc have been inspired to write moving choral works based on the ancient text. Inexplicably, Antonin Dvorák's "Stabat Mater," a sprawling, reflective, often beautiful composition, has been gathering mountains of dust for years.

It's fitting on at least two counts that Robert Shaw should be the one to blow away the cobwebs and breathe fresh life into this substantial work. First, he has proved his mettle as an outstanding choral conductor over the decades. Second, this was Shaw's last recording before his death last January, and he has left us with something great by which to remember him.

In 10 movements and nearly an hour and a half long, Dvorák's "Stabat Mater" is a test of stamina. It isn't particularly taxing vocally, and the orchestral parts aren't all that demanding, but in order to pull off the work successfully, the intensity and depth of sentiment must be maintained, and the wedding between textual clarity and musical feeling has to be sustained.

Then, there's always the interplay among soloists, chorus and orchestra to consider. On these counts, Shaw is to be commended highly. The seamless integration of so many forces has to be credited to him.

For instance, there's a superb balance among the woodwinds, chorus, soprano and tenor in the eighth movement. In the fourth section, the bass soloist's supplication is mirrored superbly by the hushed women's voices as they assume the entreaty.

The pain is almost palpable in the dark, shadowy first movement, but the concluding movement is radiant with hope as the soloists and chorus sing of the promise of paradise. The soaring soprano line coasts above a chorus of triumphant "Amens" in a rousing exclamation that fades into blissful serenity.

Although more contemplative than profound, Dvorák's work is nonetheless spiritually and musically elevating. As impressive as they are, soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Stanford Olsen and bass-baritone Nathan Berg don't try to shine individually as much as they aspire to add to the conception of the work as an organic whole.

A bonus on this two-CD recording is an interview Robert Shaw did with National Public Radio last year. Of course, it's interesting to listen to Shaw's ideas about the "Stabat Mater," but far more enriching to hear them put into musical practice on his grand farewell.

George Bulanda writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].