There are some wonderful things in Dvořák’s Requiem, but there are good reasons why it remains a rarity on concert stages, at least in the UK. For one thing, it’s basically a sequence of slow movements. With the notable exception of the Dies irae, the tempo seldom gets above Andante, and that means it lacks variety. Most damagingly, that means it lacks the red-blooded drama of the Requiems by Berlioz and Verdi while, on the other hand, it lacks the consolatory power of Fauré’s or Duruflé’s Requiems.  

Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

When it’s in the hands of someone who believes in it, however, it can be very effective, and Jakub Hrůša certainly believes in it. His clarity of vision was the main reason why this evening worked. You get the impression that this was a labour of love for him –  an attempt to convince a wider audience that one of his musical loves is worth getting to know – and his grasp of the structural ebb and flow was never less than masterful. I loved, for example, the way he shaped the Recordare, reminding us that it was definitely a hymn, but with a wind accompaniment that could have stepped out of a Bohemian folksong; or the beautiful, hushed Pie Jesu that ended the Sequenza. On the other extreme, the thrilling climax of the Lux aeterna was brilliantly controlled and carefully graded, while preparing the way for the hushed prayers that followed, which avoided sounding anticlimactic.

Hrůša conducted a strong team of Czech soloists, most strikingly the rich, throaty mezzo of Václava Krejčí Housková and the bass of Jan Martinik, who sounded powerful but still lyrical. Eva Hornyaková was bright at the top of her soprano range, and Pavel Černoch was clean, though a little strangled in his big moments, like the Liber scriptus. Hrůša’s orchestra, on the other hand, was the core German band of the Bamberg Symphony, of which he is now chief conductor. They played for him as though they shared his vision, with translucent strings in the celestial Offertorio and ringing brass in the Dies irae. Indeed, that climactic section of the work was the most orchestrally impressive part of the evening, with brilliant, ringing brass leading a resounding culmination which was nevertheless clear in every strand, with every ostinato beautifully articulated.

The chorus was on super form, too, totally clear throughout and admirably controlled with rock-solid technique in, for example, the fugue on Quam olim Abrahae. The singers could also summon up effective drama, going hell-for-leather at the Dies irae but also fading to a terrified whisper at the end of the Rex tremendae. The audience was totally engaged, too, and sat in a rapt silence that was unusual for an Usher Hall festival audience.

So it was a great performance, about as convincing as I’d hope to hear; but it couldn’t shake me from my conviction that this remains a B-list Requiem, and I don’t think I’m too bothered by the likelihood that it’ll be several years before I hear it again.