Antonín Dvořák was a man of simple, but deep faith. Upon completion, he inscribed most of his manuscripts with the words “Thanks be to God” in Czech. That faith was put to the test when all three of his children died within the span of a year. The eldest was three; the youngest a newborn daughter who lived less than a day. It was that death which inspired him to sketch a setting of the 13th-century poem describing Mary at the foot of the cross. After the lacerating loss of his other two children, he returned to his sketch and expanded his original concept to include a full orchestra while distributing the contents of the poem’s 20 stanzas in ten movements instead of seven. Via the poem, Dvořák gave full voice to his profound sorrow and ultimately found solace, acceptance, and affirmation in identifying with the grieving mother, Mary, and her suffering son.

Andris Nelsons and soloists with the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Dvořák’s tempi are mostly on the slow side. Andris Nelsons used inflection, dynamics, and the highlighting of the variety of instrumental voices coloring each movement to avoid monotony. He began the long, symphonic first movement, encompassing the first four stanzas of the poem, quietly with the orchestra initially murmuring the long rising, then falling phrases broken by sobs and describing Mary’s weeping. He built the movement into a powerful lamentation as both quartet and chorus joined in. The second movement, carried by the vocal quartet, transformed the lament into a dirge. From the third movement on, the lower strings playing at the lowest extent of their range become less dominant. Nelsons handled the gradual shift from dark to light subtly until the explosion of the refulgent G-major chord at paradisi gloria burst through the gloom in the final movement’s recapitulation of the first, leading ultimately to a jubilant Amen double fugue.

Nelsons had a strong and pliant chorus and a skilled quartet of soloists to bring his vision to life. Of the four, Matthew Rose deserves particular recognition as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Ain Anger and for his solo/chorus dialogue, Fac ut ardeat cor meum. This is one of the most challenging pieces for bass, requiring both power and finesse, plus complete mastery of the voice’s entire range, rising to an F sharp. Rose met all those technical requirements, devoting them to expressing his verse’s powerful yearning for the “burning love” of God. Dvořák contrasts his darker-hued, earth-bound passage by giving the second verse invoking Mary’s intercession to the ethereal women’s chorus, faintly supported by the organ. When this sequence is repeated, the men join the women before the bass closes the movement. All the forces involved came together to make this an emotional high point of the afternoon.

The following movement with its jaunty tune for the chorus feeling as out of place as Rossini’s Cujus animam broke the mood , but only briefly, thanks to Dmytro Popov’s plangent solo with chorus, Fac me vere tecum flere in which the soloist fervently longs to stand by the cross and weep with Mary so that he might go on living. Popov’s voice has an appealing baritonal quality which gives his lower notes weight and warmth and gives strength to his highest. His legato singing was like balsam. Here’s hoping he’s back soon.

Kristine Opolais has decided the soprano part no longer fits her voice and has dropped it from her repertory. She withdrew from these performances in January and Rachel Willis-Sørensen was engaged. Except for a duet with the tenor, the soprano part is limited to the three movements involving the quartet, but it is still not an easy sing. She represents that sliver of light and hope which will eventually lead the mourner to the concluding vision of paradise. The light of Willis-Sørenson’s voice was never lost thanks to its expressive, limpid tone and ability to float above even the loudest and thickest passages. Violetta Urmana tempered her powerhouse mezzo and sang with intimacy and subdued emotion. In her solo, however, she amplified the Handelian repose of the walking bass passage to an emotional intensity before ending as she had begun.

A program insert acknowledging the death of André Previn announced that “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations would be performed before this week’s concerts. It was a solemn, heartfelt tribute. Though the Stabat Mater itself was not dedicated to his memory, it made the performance all the more poignant and pertinent. The All Strauss program with Renée Fleming two weeks hence, already featuring music close to Previn’s heart, will be dedicated to his memory instead.