Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is a beautiful piece of music. Last night at Müpa, we had four singers with beautiful voices, plus a choir and orchestra with a beautiful sound in a lovely venue. But it was one of those times when beauty isn’t enough; this was a disappointing evening of music. The Stabat Mater invites comparison with Verdi’s Requiem. Both are substantial works which are highly operatic, written by composers with considerable experience of opera but little of liturgical music. Both were written as the response to the death of loved ones: in Dvořák’s case, of his daughter Josefa (made worse when his two other children died during the composition process); in Verdi’s case, of the greatly admired Alessandro Manzoni. Some of Dvořák’s orchestration is straight out of the Verdi playbook, such as the climax marked by a big tutti over a rapid cello and bass ostinato on a single note. But there is a crucial difference: Dvořák was a man of profound Catholic faith, whereas Verdi was not. Where the Requiem is a cry of anguish suffused with fear and awe, the Stabat Mater finds profound consolation in faith.

Riccardo Frizza conducts the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Riccardo Frizza conducts the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Conductor Riccardo Frizza, replacing the previously advertised Roberto Abbado, led an interpretation which took that consolation to extremes, to the point where, to my ears, the music was stripped of most of its power. The text of the Stabat Mater is about the pious Christian – the listener – participating in Mary’s grief before imploring mercy and salvation. For the music to fulfil its purpose, we have to feel that sympathetic grief to the depths of our being before receiving the consolation of faith. Instead, what we had was a rather stately progression, all very beautiful but lacking in edge.

© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Several elements contributed to this. The first was a lack of balance between orchestra and choir. On a quick count, the choir were around 70 strong, standing on relatively low risers well behind the orchestra. This simply wasn’t enough: singing on their own, the choir’s fortissimi were of perfectly acceptable power. Sung over the heads of the Hungarian Radio Orchestra in full flow, their sound was submerged. The next contributory element was the unusual positioning of the four soloists on risers behind the orchestra (but in front of the choir). Paolo Fanale may be a tenor with a voice that can fill the Metropolitan Opera House, but he was unable to project his voice above the orchestra enough to make a real impact – although, when the orchestra quietened down, the vocal quality was clearly there. Mezzo Szilvia Vörös was another singer who sounded quite lovely singing solo, smooth timbre and truly fervent, but was almost inaudible in ensemble. Liang Li’s basso cantante had lovely lilt but lacked the same fervency. Anastasia Shchegoleva fared better, it being easier for a soprano voice to cut above the wash: there were some telling sustained high notes.

Anastasia Shchegoleva, Szilvia Vörös, Paolo Fanale and Liang Li © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Anastasia Shchegoleva, Szilvia Vörös, Paolo Fanale and Liang Li
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

In general, however, Frizza did not get much in the way of accenting from either orchestra or choir, either over the long span of a phrase, or in the short term attack on notes. The final “Amens” were a case in point, the “Ah” being sung loudly and smoothly, the “men” almost inaudible because there was no clear enunciation of the initial “m”.

There were some fine moments, of course: there have to be, in such a great work sung by good musicians. Fanale’s initial entry was strong, Shchegoleva’s part of Fac, ut portem Christi mortem was transporting, the unaccompanied choral part of the final Quando corpus morietur was full and persuasive. But overall, this was a concert which didn’t come close to delivering the emotional impact I had hoped for.

**111