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Intensity Over Subtlety: NSO Excels at Stabat Mater

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Thursday evening Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Chorus, and four outstanding soloists offered a powerful Lenten reflection at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. They performed a highly charged account of Antonin Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, one of the great settings of the medieval poem depicting Mary’s pierced heart on Good Friday and the pleas of intercession made through it.

Almost four years to the day, on March 16th, 2008, I heard the Stabat Mater performed by the Choral Arts Society Choir and Orchestra, under conductor Norman Scribner, also at the Kennedy Center. (Review on ionarts here.) The Choir had been outstanding, but the soloists were lacking and placing an intermission after the fourth movement was a strategic error. It’s hard to sustain elemental sorrow, interrupted by a trip to the concession stand. Surely, it is not too much to ask an audience to sit for an hour and a half for this 10-movement masterpiece.

The present performance suffered from neither of these impediments. The Chorus was exceptional again, and the work was performed by the four soloists with intense emotional commitment in an uninterrupted concert. The NSO easily eclipsed the Choral Arts Society Orchestra, as they should.

available at AmazonA.Dvořák, Stabat Mater,
Sawallisch / CzPO / Benacková, Wenkel, Dvorsky, Rootering
Eschenbach and his forces projected an enormous volume of sound and everything was played full bore. The grief was almost shouted out. The first movement, twice as long as the next longest, was played with such force and passion, one wondered where the performance could go from there. In the full recapitulation that closes the first movement, the answer was: through the roof—which is where it went in the closing movement as well.

In five of the eight middle movements, the soloists are the key. Soprano Anne Schwanewilms, contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, tenor Steve Davislim, and the base Burak Bilgili all excelled. Because of the all-out playing and singing by the orchestra and chorus, they more or less had to fend for themselves in projecting over the massive volume of sound. They generally succeeded in doing this; only Nathalie Stutzmann showed slight strain, and even then the extra effort added to the dramatic effect. Anne Schwanewilms’ soprano voice is extraordinarily powerful without any coarseness. Her singing was exquisite. The great gravity of Turkish bass Burak Bilgili made his an outstanding contribution. Some of the most thrilling moments of the evening were when the four functioned as a quartet against the gorgeous choral singing, with orchestral support. This was high drama, indeed.

Perhaps this performance could have benefited from more subtlety. But that might have come at the expense of the incredible intensity Eschenbach and his forces achieved. I have heard Eschenbach elicit great subtlety from the NSO, especially in his debut performance with the Verdi Requiem. But as I learned from his riveting performance of the Bruckner Ninth in February, this conductor particularly excels in making the transcendent perceptible – to make you tremble when the heavens are riven. He did it again on Thursday Night.

The Stabat Mater will be repeated Saturday evening, March 24th, at 8PM.