Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” given sweet and resounding treatment by Wellington’s Bach Choir

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents –
DVOŘÁK – Stabat Mater Op.58

Michaela Cadwgan (soprano)
Linden Loader (contralto)
Jamie Young (tenor)
Simon Christie (bass)

Douglas Mews (piano)

Shawn Michael Condon (conductor)

Queen Margaret College, Thorndon, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

I had momentarily forgotten that my Middle C colleague of the time, Lindis Taylor, had reviewed a performance of this work in Paraparaumu as recently as 2018, a circumstance which effectively stymied any thoughts I might have had of extravagantly proclaiming it a “neglected masterpiece”! However, as I didn’t attend this earlier performance and thus came new to the work as a “live” experience on Saturday at Queen Margaret College, I still felt very much imbued with the feeling of “discovery” as a concert-goer (I do own a recording of the music, so was familiar with its general outlines and ebb and flow of emotion, though without having enjoyed that thrill of immediacy that a live concert gives….).

An extra “edge” was given my experience here, quite unintentionally – though I’ve never considered myself dyslexic, I somehow got it into my head that the venue for the concert was Marsden College in Karori! (Well, both “Marsden” and “Margaret” begin with “M”, so surely it was a mistake anybody could have made…….yes? Er, no! – as I found myself to be the ONLY ONE wandering around the grounds and buildings of Marsden after I’d arrived in Karori with only ten minutes to go before starting time!) Thanks to some nifty driving, a reasonably handy car-park in Thorndon, and two kindly people associated with the event who “took care” of me upon my out-of-breath arrival at the Queen Margaret College Hall, I was able to hear most of the opening “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” from the hall doorway, and then squirrel myself into a seat near the door for the rest! My relief at feeling I’d navigated the obstacles, and grateful pleasure at receiving the kind assistance that I did, was then somewhat mitigated by my dropping the car key noisily on the floor of the hall midway through the vocal quartet’s Quis est homo qui non fleret – but afterwards I found myself gradually settling into the atmosphere cast by the music’s spell and its committed-sounding performance.

Though I wasn’t ideally placed to clearly hear parts of the opening movement , from where I was standing it nevertheless sounded as if all sections of the choir were blending their tones beautifully, differentiating the music’s flowing dynamic levels with telling intent, and seeming to give their all in conveying the dramatic building-up of sounds and emotions which took over the music towards the movement’s end in its truly inexorable way – largely a recapitulation of the introductory section, which I was glad to “catch”. The tenor, Jamie Young, also repeated his dramatic entry, which introduced the other vocal soloists’ participation in the ebb and flow of piteous emotion expressed by the words and their settings. At the beginning of the following Quis est homo qui non fleret  (Who is the person who would not weep) contralto Linden Loader’s tremulous but focused tones brought out the words’ desolation, before being joined by the tenor, Jamie Young’s rather more urgently histrionic delivery. Bass Simon Christie contributed a sonorous Quis est homo, sparking a ferment of exchange, before soprano Micaela Cadwgan pinned our ears back with an arresting Pro peccatis suae gentis (for the sins of his people), and then duetted beautifully with Linden Loader, repeating the same phrase, Dvořák here repeatedly giving his singers the movement’s most striking music when delivering these same words, Simon Christie delivering a particularly sonorous solo line at one point. With exemplary pianistic support from the wonderful Douglas Mews, conductor Shawn Michael Condon brought his singers through the torturous ways of their exchanges to a place of suitable contemplation with the words Vidit sum dulcem natum moriendo (She saw her sweet offspring dying) to appropriately moving effect.

The grim, Schubert-like Eja mater, fons amoris (Mother, fountain of love), was given appropriately sombre treatment, the cries of “fac!” properly rending the air, contrasting tellingly with the hushed Ut tecum lugeam (that I may grieve with you).  And in the following Fac, ut ardeat cor meum (Grant that my heart may burn), Simon Christie’s baritonal timbres enabled a moving cantabile line at Un sibi complaceam (to please My Lord), sweetly backed by angelic voices invoking the Mother of God at Sancta mater, istud agas (Grant, Holy Mother) with beatific tones ostensibly at odds with the words’ conjuring up of images suggesting suffering and agony! Though the lack of numbers in the tenor section of the choir were evident, the choir ‘s intensification of delivery made its effect, as did Christie’s more lyrical passages.

Some of Dvořák’s most beautiful writing in the work was for the opening of the chorus Tui nati vulnerate (Let me share with thee his pain), before an anguished and agitated middle section which soon dispersed, the music returning to its lullabic character, here, most winningly realised. Tenor Jamie Young’s delivery of the following Fac me vere tecum flere (Let me sincerely weep with you)  for me came across more successfully in its forthright than in its more lyrical sequences, the singer seeming to find it difficult to relax his voice, and more at home when pumping out the intensities, given that anguish seemed the order of the day, here. The male voices of the choir provided sweet-toned support, echoing the singer’s phrases (very Schubertian, here!), with Young revelling in the “sturm und drang” of Juxta crucem tecum stare (To stand beside the cross with you).

Another lovely choral sequence was provided by Virgo Virginum (VIrgin of Virgins), conductor Shawn Michael Condon getting his voices to sweetly “own” the soaring tessituras, blending the whole-choir strands most beautifully, with Douglas Mews contributing, according to my notes , a “mean accompaniment” here!  If the “piano” version allowed less of the “Slavic” colour of the work to catch the ear, the music’s melodic charm and rhythmic charge was well served by Mews’ idiomatic-sounding playing. The soprano and tenor duet Fac ut portem Christi mortem (Grant that I may bear the death of Christ) came off excitingly, due to their give-and-take combination, and their shared fearlessness at risking rawness when tackling the high-lying passages in each of their parts. The final solo section was given the contralto, a piece which seemed positively Handelian at the start, and certainly very baroque-like! The sentiments also seemed Handelian, calling for trenchant tones! – Inflammatus et accencus (Inflame and set on fire). The central, more lyrical section of the movement brought out the lyric quality of Linden Loader’s voice, returning to forthrightness at the opening’s reprise, and including touches of theatrical darkness at the end, with Confoveri gratia (Let His grace cherish me).

And so, we were brought to the final movement of the work, Quando Corpus Morietur (When my body dies).  The contralto and bass began in beseeching mode, drawing in the soprano and tenor and eventually the choir, building towards a climax in the manner of the first movement, except that this one peaked more positively! As the soloists rhapsodised, in the expectation of the prospect of Paradise, the “Amens” suddenly burst out, soloists and choir exchanging these impulses of affirmation with a wondrous ferment, conductor Shaun Michael Condon steering everything expertly forwards towards a great peroration. The final  Quando corpus morietur , slow, grand and solemn, left Douglas Mews’ piano rhapsodising, and the voices repeating all kinds of ecstatic “Amens” – at the conclusion of it all, the musicians were happily spent, and the audience exhilarated, and appreciative, with a real “buzz” of excitement in the foyer afterwards! Certainly, I thought, a concert well worth desperately scrambling to get to the right venue on the day, for!

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P.S. on a more sombre note, I read the kindly and appreciative note in the programme concerning the recent death of a former director of the Bach Choir, Stephen Rowley, whom I also well remember. I would like to add the condolences of Middle C reviewers past and present to those expressed, to  Stephen’s family.

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