The history of Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride (Svatební Kosile, or, as it was here at Berlin’s Konzerthaus, Die Geisterbraut) tells us a lot about late 19th-century musical fashions. And it tells us specifically about the musical fashions of Victorian England and its taste for oratorio. Commissioned at the instigation of Novello, the publisher, for the 1885 Birmingham Festival, it sets words based on a versified folk tale by the minor Prague literary figure Karel Jaromir Erben, whose work was also the inspiration for several of the composer’s more sinister later tone poems.

Martina Rüping © Nancy Glor
Martina Rüping
© Nancy Glor
The Birmingham première was an enormous success, and the piece went on to enjoy considerable international popularity for a short while. It’s an awkward hybrid, though, and one can understand its rarity today: three soloists are required, as well as chorus and orchestra; it’s a little too short, at some 80 minutes in length, to make a satisfying concert on its own. Promoters tend not to be that enamoured of generic oddities such as this either. Novello’s score designates it ‘A Dramatic Cantata’ and the programme for this concert plumped for ‘Ballade’; either way, it's an awkward hybrid.

The story itself is a familiar-feeling one, and tells, in brief, of an abandoned girl who longs for her lover, off travelling far away. An apparition appears who lures her away to take part in ghostly marriage ritual, but she saves herself at the last minute. The soprano solo plays the girl, the tenor solo the apparition, while a bass and the chorus carry the narrative burden. The music, woven together with recurring motifs, is often wonderful, although rarely quite as memorable as one wills it to be. The girl’s final prayer, for example, takes several minutes to find its feet, but the finale, in which matters reach a spooky climax before the gentle happy conclusion, is great fun. An extended duet between tenor and soprano occasionally seems to look forward towards that between Rusalka and the Prince in the composer’s later operatic masterpiece.

Despite this concert being a showcase for the Berlin Singakademie, the emphasis often seemed to be on the orchestra. Here is where the composer’s most inspired writing is, and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin played beautifully, with some excellent work form the principal horn and cor anglais soloist in particular – the latter instrumental in creating the work’s melancholy, haunting tinta. Achim Zimmermann conducted with a generous lyrical sweep.

The Singakademie itself sang with vigour and impressive technical precision. It was a shame, though, that none of the three soloists was able to assert themselves sufficiently against the massed choral and orchestral forces. This was as much a matter of casting than anything else. Philipp Kaven, in the bass role, sang eloquently but the part clearly needs something more operatic and imposing than he was able to provide. A similar issue existed with tenor Lothar Odinius, although he brought considerable sweetness to the more tender passages. Martina Rüping struggled to project in her middle range, but was more impressive when the music took her towards her shimmering, penetrating top register – and her final prayer was movingly done.