In the mid-16th century, the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent banned liturgical use of the 13th century Stabat Mater poetical sequence. When that ban was overturned by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, the musical floodgates were opened, producing more settings of this text than one can count. In the 1700s alone, the Stabat Mater (a meditation centering on the thoughts of Jesus’ mother, Mary, as she witnessed his crucifixion) was set to music by composers including Bononcini, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Boccherini, and Haydn. In more recent times, the text has inspired settings by such masters as Poulenc, Pärt, Penderecki, Szymanowski, Howells, and Karl Jenkins.
The 19th century produced large-scale, quasi-operatic settings by Rossini and Verdi, and by the Bohemian/Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, whose 1880 Stabat Mater we heard in Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall as the NC Master Chorale closed its 2014-2015 concert season with a radiant performance conducted by its Music Director, Alfred E. Sturgis.
Beginning late (and with many seats left unfilled) due to road closings accommodating the Raleigh Rock and Roll Marathon, Sturgis’ clear and non-histrionic conducting encouraged the 49-piece orchestra’s Romantic-era sound as the extended orchestral introduction to the opening movement announced its topic by playing octave F-sharp pitches, the sharp interpreted as a symbol of the Cross. Despite the somber text and the personal experiences of grief which must have influenced his setting, Dvořák could not but compose Romantic music which during the course of the twenty stanzas sometimes seems to contradict that somberness. This was never more in evidence than in the fifth movement chorus. The almost doggerel Latin text (Tui nati vulnerati, Tam dignati pro me pati, Poenas mecum divide), translated as “Share with me the pains Of your wounded Son Who deigned to suffer so much for me,” begins with music both lyrical and sprightly, seemingly more suited to a walk in the park. Then, as if Dvořák suddenly remembered the text he was setting, the mood and mode of the music change, becoming appropriately dark before the movement’s “A section” returns.
This season, the Master Chorale has reached a new and higher level of performance. Their tone, blend, and diction are excellent, a credit to Sturgis’ continued mentoring. They were matched by a quartet of fine solo voices: soprano Danielle Talamantes, mezzo-soprano Charlotte Daw Paulsen, tenor Wade Henderson, and bass-baritone Kerry Wilkerson (substituting for the announced soloist Jonathan Deutsch).
In a performance which was uniformly excellent, several passages stood out as exceptional: in the second movement’s solo quartet, the blending of Henderson’s and Wilkerson’s voices in duet; in the “Eja Mater, fons amoris” chorus, the Chorale’s diction and the soprano/tenor canonic lines rising to high-A pitches in glorious serenity; Wilkerson’s dramatic delivery of the declamatory lines of “Fac, ut ardeat cor meum” in the fourth movement; the sensitively-sung a capella passages of the choral fifth movement (“Virgo virginum praaeclara”).
Then there was the ‘Wow! moment,’ as mezzo Paulsen sang the work’s penultimate movement, “Inflammatus et accensus.” Hers is a voice to be reckoned with, her low registers outstanding in their flamed/burnished copper sonorities. Combined with her dramatic delivery, Paulsen’s voice was a true high point of the afternoon’s music-making.
The last movement’s prayer, with its vision of Paradise, contains the most fast-moving music of the work. When the chorus reached the perorational “Paradisi gloria,” I wondered if Ralph Vaughan Williams might have had this passage of Dvořák in mind when he composed the opening lines of his “Sea Symphony,” “Behold! The sea itself...” Turning to D Major, the key of so many moments of great choral music finales, Dvořák opens the gates of Heaven to all believers in this transcendent passage and “Amen.”
In sum, a definitive performance of a less-often heard masterwork which brought an ovation from the audience. The NC Master Chorale and their vocal and orchestral partners indeed gave a masterful performance deserving of high praise.