Kapiti and Palmerston North choirs in rewarding performance of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater

Kapiti Chamber Choir and Renaissance Singers, Palmerston North, with orchestra, conducted by Eric Sidoti
Soloists: Barbara Paterson (soprano), Ellen Barrett (contralto0, Jamie Young (tenor), Simon Christie (bass)

Dvořák: Stabat Mater

St Paul’s Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday 15 April, 2:30 pm

This seems to be the Dvořák year in Wellington, as two days earlier I had heard players from Orchestra Wellington perform two of his chamber works – the String Quintet No 2 and the Serenade for wind instruments, cello and bass. Orchestra Wellington is featuring five of Dvořák’s symphonies in their 2018 season; and RNZ Concert are playing them all this week! Most welcome as we tend to hear little other than the New World Symphony (No 9) and the cello concerto from our orchestras; and from chamber music groups only the familiar American string quartet and the (admittedly gorgeous) mature (No 2 in each case) piano quartet and piano quintet.

The combination of a good local choir and visitors from Palmerston North ensured at least one thing, that the volume of sound was appropriate to the demands of the music. Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is a major choral work, written in the era of great popularity of large choirs and large-scale choral music, a period when over-blown compositions, sometimes inspired more by religious compulsion than musical inspiration, were produced in response to popular demand. This piece cannot be classed with such works, as Dvořák matches his religious convictions with committed, deeply felt music.

Inevitably, amateur choral skills are usually greater than amateur orchestral abilities, and that might have been evident in the orchestral introduction, but it was a small price to pay for the plain advantage of having an orchestra instead of a piano or organ to support a major choral work composed for choir and orchestra. Yet the opening choral passage led by strings, caught the grieving tone sensitively with its descending phrases; though later on balances between strings, woodwinds and brass proved more difficult.

The soloists generally managed their parts well, though in the early stages tenor Jamie Young sounded somewhat stretched; and while soprano Barbara Paterson settled well into some of her later more extended singing, her first entry lacked a certain warmth in its higher register. But she had happier experiences in both vii, ‘Virgo virginium’ and viii, ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’. Bass Simon Christie sounded comfortable right from the start and his contributions always sounded particularly appropriate. Contralto Ellen Barrett, who emerged in part ii, where soloists sang without the choir, sounded as if she believed in her texts and her voice blended warmly with the other soloists.

In ii, for the four soloists (and in later sections that entailed soloists without choir) they grew into their distinct roles, generally supported by well-modulated orchestral accompaniment; these were certainly among the more persuasive, satisfying sections.

The choir returned for iii, the ‘Eia, Mater, fons amoris…’ with its hypnotic repetition of one of the music’s moving, dotted motifs, and it was good to hear Christie again, now with the choir in ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’ (iv).

The tone of the piece changes at section v, as the choir sings a less grieving, consolatory episode in swaying triple time; but I was surprised at the rather excessive sforzando ‘poenas’. Nevertheless, it emerged as a moment of respite from the pervasive sorrowful tone till that point.

The tenor alone sings the steady-paced vi, ‘Fac me vere’ (repeated with choir a great many times) showing more comfortable control of the carefully distinct words in those verses. The choir on its own produced effective, emphatic phrases, with which Young joined.

The choir, again on its own, delivered a restrained and rather charming ‘Virgo virginum’, with bare strings supporting the slow, wide-spaced melody. Then in the only section for duet, Paterson and Young wove their lines together, thoroughly integrated now (in spite of the soprano having to utter lots of multi-syllables). Barnett got her solo turn in the penultimate section, now with sensitive orchestral support, though the composer needn’t have burdened her with such heavy brass; I enjoyed the second verse of this section particularly: ‘Fac me plagis’ with its supportive oboe and other winds.

The last section is in the nature of a lamenting funeral march, with choir shifting abruptly from mf to ff, and finally the familiar theme from the first section returns to bring a more peaceful, even enlivening, mood to its conclusion. So in spite of the hard to deny shortcomings intrinsic to an amateur choir and orchestra, this was a persuasive and satisfying performance that’s a credit to conductor Sidoti and his soloists and of course all the singers and instrumentalists.

Returning to Dvořák performance again; there are so many of his works that ought to be better known, apart from the last two or three symphonies; there are violin and piano concertos, unjustly neglected; there’s the lovely string Serenade; all 16 Slavonic Dances and the Slavonic Rhapsodies, the sparkling Scherzo Capriccioso and bagatelles that include a harmonium part and a variety of other chamber music; five symphonic poems; a Requiem and a Te Deum, and so on….

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