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Dvorák’s Slav converts’ tale

17 June 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears a rarely performed Romantic oratorio


IN AN adventurous conclusion to its May programme, the Hallé Or­­ches­tra, under its music director, Sir Mark Elder, turned its attention to the varied music of Antonín Dvorák.

This was no small-scale occasion. While the last three symphonies, Slavonic Dances, and symphonic poems have featured, all bringing vitality and colour to the celebra­tion, there have been rarities, too. The composer’s Moravian Duets, one of the earliest works in which he explored bringing atmospheric, folk-like melodies to the fore, and composed in his thirties, featured the spirited Hallé Youth Choir; and, as well as the Cello Concerto, the rarely heard Piano Concerto in G minor (dating from the same year, 1876), which has in the past few years come to be recognised for its forceful quality on a par with Brahms, was given a vibrant hearing, with Francesco Piemontesi as soloist.

For the climax of its Dvorák festival, the Hallé embarked on one of the boldest choral revivals of modern times. While the com­poser’s Stabat Mater and later Requiem have made their way into the repertoire, there is also an even larger work — his three-act oratorio Saint Ludmila which has scarcely been heard outside his native Czech Republic. Full of robust choruses, poignant solos, and exciting orchestra­tion, this rare Hallé performance proved what a mighty undertaking, on a par with his equally little-known operas, this large-scale choral work is.

The process by which Saint Ludmila, a passionate enactment of the story of the conversion of Slav­onic pagans to Christianity, came to be commissioned was interesting. The Stabat Mater had already been hailed as a masterpiece, after British performances in London and Worcester in 1882-84. Soon after­wards, Dvorák was asked to write something for the 1886 Leeds Triennial Festival. Leeds, which sported a huge festival chorus, cautiously favoured a biblical theme — Samson and Delilah was one suggestion; but Dvorák had already, at the Birmingham Festival of 1885, secured support for an eerie Bohemian fairy-tale subject, The Spectre’s Bride, which was hailed as a success.

So, in Leeds, the composer — a life-long profound Christian believer — held out for a story close to his heart, focused on the coming of Christianity to ninth-century Bohemia. He had something sub­stantial in mind, and the resulting Saint Ludmila gave the festival chorus a weighty piece of music, with an evocative if, perhaps, slightly simplistic conversion narrative drawn from the eminent and prolific Czech poet, Jaroslav Vrchlický.

In the First Act, choruses galore, with some beautiful, challenging music, celebrate the coming of spring and the warmth of the sun. This is a reflection of the pagan and polytheistic era that preceded the arrival of Christianity. A solo tenor (a jolly rustic), here exquisitely sung by Stuart Jackson, twice celebrates the renewal of the new season and the joyous first signs of the harvest.

Ludmila, the princess, sings rapturously to “the Goddess Baba”. In the original Czech text, a range of individual deities are celebrated by name: at this point, she seems wholly committed to the long-established pagan traditions.

But near the close of Act I, her assumptions are seriously shaken by a priest (finely sung at all stages by bass James Creswell) who insists on “One God alone! One true religion, One path to truth!” He despises the idolatry of the Bohemians and proclaims “the Cross, the truth incarnate. . . Those who turn to me find revelation.” He heartily condemns the Slavs’ idols; upon which a mighty storm is unleashed and destroys them.

Change is on the way. Ludmila (the part was rivetingly sung by Emma Bell) is already strangely troubled by the priest: “Tell me, who are you?” she pleads. Then the drama intensifies vividly, thanks to her maid-in-waiting Svatava (the powerfully characterful mezzo-soprano Christine Rice), who forcefully argues against the Princess’s attraction to the priest, Ivan. This conflict between Svatava and her now wavering mistress produces some of the best quasi-operatic scenes in the oratorio.

The crucial sequence, however, is more important. The Prince (with his hunting attendants), inspired by an apparent miracle of a dying deer rescued from an arrow by an old man, is drawn both to Ludmila herself — married, they will become the rulers of Bohemia — and to the Christian vision insistently pro­­­claimed by the priest. This is perhaps where some sentimentality comes in: his conversion is almost too instant. Yet, despite its simplicity, the story’s sincerity is patent (”Humbly I am kneeling. I worship the Cross!” in the director David Pountney’s serviceable translation: “Pray, teach me how to find the one true way”).

Thus it is that the Dawn cele­b­rated by the pagans at the outset becomes the Dawn and Sunlight treasured by the newly converted Christians. In a glorious celebratory final act, it is Ivan the Priest who leads the praise, summoning Prince and Princess to be baptised by Bishop Methodius, the historic founder of Bohemian Christianity.

Vrchlický’s text here offers the opportunity for Dvorák to embark on a new series of large-scale choruses, mirroring those of Act I, to produce a Christian celebration of almost Handelian vitality and intensity. With the Hallé Orchestra — not least, flutes and oboes and upper strings — thrillingly ener­­gised, and a vast and impressive chorus, this unusual climax to the Hallé’s action-packed Dvorák festival in the Bridgewater Hall could scarcely have been more worth while.

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