Dusting off a rare gem by Dvorak

Times Staff Writer

Dvorak's Stabat Mater is an unjustly neglected masterpiece that may be coming into its own. A new Naxos CD by the Washington Chorus and Orchestra led by Robert Shafer joins the slim ranks of previous recordings by Czech music specialists such as Vaclav Talich and Rafael Kubelik.

John Alexander, music director of the Pacific Chorale, made the work the major part of a chorale concert Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and, as on the Naxos disc, paired it with Dvorak's Psalm 149.

Dvorak began writing the Stabat Mater -- whose text depicts the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross -- to deal with his grief over the death of his newborn daughter Josefa in 1876. Forced to put it aside because of the pressures of commissions, the composer took it up a year later when another daughter, Ruzena, died of an accidental poisoning in 1877. Then, astonishingly, his son Otakar died of smallpox soon after.

Dvorak poured all his agony into the sprawling piece, yet somehow managed to find hope and comfort in the vision of paradise that closes the text.

Alexander led the Pacific Chorale, the Pacific Symphony and four soloists -- soprano Shana Blake Hill, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen, tenor John Christian Edward and bass Michael Gallup -- in a sturdy but not illuminating performance of the work. High points included the women's gentle response in "Fac ut ardeat cor meum" (Grant that my heart may burn) and the sudden shift at the climax of the work to an arresting hymn setting of the final stanza. But many expressive possibilities were missed.

The program opened with a rousing performance of Psalm 149 in a 1968 edition restoring the composer's original intentions, which had been softened by his German publisher. The chorale sang it confidently in Czech.

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