The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst wrapped up their Severance Hall season this weekend with a performance of Antonín Dvořák's beautiful Stabat Mater that was well-prepared and had many virtues. Among those virtues was an international quartet of soloists Canadian soprano Erin Wall, English mezzo Jennifer Johnston, Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst, and American bass-baritone Eric Owens. Wall and Johnston were making their Severance Hall debuts, although Johnston had previously sung with The Cleveland Orchestra in a performance in Paris.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts Dvořák's Stabat Mater in Cleveland © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst conducts Dvořák's Stabat Mater in Cleveland
© Roger Mastroianni

The Stabat Mater text, an anonymous 13th-century Latin poem depicting the vigil of Mary, mother of Jesus, as she observes his crucifixion and death, has been set many times by composers as diverse as Palestrina, Poulenc, Penderecki and Pärt. Its short lines of trochaic tetrameter consisting of 24 four-line verses, make it naturally attractive as a libretto. Some composers, such as Pärt, set it syllabically, and without text repetition. Dvořák took the words in the an opposite direction, with extreme repetition of text, without particular regard for the grammatical meaning of the words. 

Dvořák's ten movements take about 75 minutes in performance, opening with a substantial orchestral prelude. The music is mostly lyrical, with a few climactic moments along the way, but Dvořák's interpretation of the text and accompanying music are more meditative than operatic. There are none of his familiar Bohemian folk elements, although there were clearly other influences, notably a Baroque style "walking bass" of the mezzo-soprano solo Inflammatus et acensus. The tempo markings are mostly Andante, with a couple of Largos and Larghettos along the way. The music is mostly in minor keys. There are a few moments of excitement, particularly in the last movement, where, finally in this performance, the chorus let loose with a solid fortissimo, and Welser-Möst let the tempo accelerate slightly. But through no fault of the performers, after a while the music had a sameness about it, although there were many lovely details along the way. To compound the problem, Severance Hall was stiflingly warm on this first really hot day of late spring in Cleveland; it was possible to observe audience members struggling to stay awake.

The orchestration of the Stabat Mater is imaginative and gives the principals many brief solo opportunities throughout. English horn and oboe have a solo dialogue in the second movement, Quis et homo qui non fleret. The brass section supported the bass solo in his fourth movement solo with chorus. But the work is primarily an ensemble accompaniment. Welser-Möst's reading was in sync with the solemn nature of the piece.

A performance of Dvořák's Stabat Mater stands or falls on the quality of its choruses. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was well-prepared, and the sound was well-balanced, although at times a bit wispy of tone; however, there was greater emphasis on legato singing and musical line rather than on diction. At many points in the performance, if the program booklet had not supplied the sung text, it would have been completely impossible to know what they were singing. The overlapping and repetition of texts further confused comprehension.

At various spots throughout the performance there were problems with balances between chorus, soloists and orchestra. Erin Wall and Norbert Ernst were almost always audible. Wall sang with shimmering beauty, and Ernst's bright tenor cut through the texture commandingly. Mezzo Jennifer Johnston's lustrous sound was clear at some times; at others, she was swamped by the orchestra. Eric Owens was, sadly, almost always inaudible, at least from my place in the Dress Circle, normally a very good place to listen. Since Owens clearly does not have a small voice, the fault seems to lie in the relatively low tessitura of Dvořák's music, the dense orchestrations, and, perhaps, not checking during rehearsal for balances in diverse parts of the auditorium. It was a shame, because when he was audible, Owens' singing was richly impressive. There were times when even the chorus seemed underpowered in comparison to the orchestral sound. But the final Amen wiped away the sadness, leading to a profound conclusion.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Dvořák's Stabat Mater in 1919, the second year after the orchestra's founding, and has only been performed by the ensemble twice since then. This performance was a good reminder of the scope of Dvořák's compositional skills. Although it was more than competent, it did not inspire a strong desire to hear it again soon.