Petr Fiala’s Splendid New Dvořák “Requiem”

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DVOŘÁK: Requiem / Simona Šaturová, soprano; Jana Sýkorova, alto; Tomáš Černý, tenor; Peter Mikuláš, bass; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra; Petr Fiala, conductor / Arcodiva UP0130 (live: Brno, November 11-12, 2010)

Dvořák’s Requiem, often considered good but not great in the early 20th century, has really come into its own since Istvan Kertesz recorded it in 1968 for Decca-London. Up until now, my gold standard performance of it was the recording by Philippe Herreweghe with soprano Ilse Eerens, mezzo Bernarda Fink, tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bass Nathan Berg with the Collegium Vocale Ghent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic on Phi LPH016, but this was largely due to Herreweghe’s incendiary conducting and not necessarily to the soloists. The top three solo voices in that performance all had slight wobbles, not quite enough to make me run for the exits but not solid enough to make me like them better than anyone else.

This new release of a live performance conducted by Petr Fiala goes a very long way towards an ideal Dvořák Requiem. Fiala’s tempi are either the same or slightly faster than Herreweghe in most sections (the “Tuba mirum” is a bit slower), but by and large his musical approach is almost a clone of Herreweghe’s. The differences come in the soloists and the amount of “air” around the performance. Šaturnová, Sýkorova and Černý all have considerably darker voices than their counterparts under Herreweghe, but also much more solid voices. My sole complaint was that, although he is a very fine and expressive singer, Černý’s voice is not beautiful in the standard sense. He almost sounds like a cross between Waldemar Kmentt and Jon Vickers, which is quite unusual. But he has no strain in the upper register and the timbre never spreads under pressure. Curiously, Šaturnová sounds a little infirm in soft, quiet passages in the middle of her voice, but is solid as a rock above the staff. It’s not enough to be a continual bother, though.

The problem as I hear it comes from the further microphone perspective of this live performance. When the orchestra and chorus need to sound a bit ferocious, as in the “Dies irae,” part of the “Tuba mirum” and in “Confutatis maledictus,” the tympani and lower instruments are just a bit too far from the microphone to make the proper impact. I’m sure they must have sounded splendid in the actual concert, however, because giving all frequencies from 400Hz on down a three-decibel boost works wonders and thus makes the Fiala recording sound as good if not better than the Herreweghe.

In addition to having a more solid voice, mezzo-soprano Jana Sýkorova completely outclasses Bernarda Fink with Herreweghe in her more dramatically incisive approach to the music. Indeed, the only singer on the Herreweghe set who comes up to the level of his counterpart with Fiala is bass Nathan Berg. Peter Mikuláš, with Fiala, is just as good but no better.

The peculiarity I noticed in both performances, however, was an almost clinical coldness in the strings. I’m not quite sure if Herreweghe, Fiala, or both are using straight tone, but if they are it is ahistorical and completely wrong for Dvořák. I think this is even more odd in Fiala’s case because this is a live performance, and one would think that the hall reverberation would give a bit more warmth and body to the strings.

But I am nit-picking here. This is a great performance. In general shape and form, as well as in emotional power, there is little to choose from between Herreweghe and Fiala. This is not a bad thing, because both performances are superior to the Kertesz in terms of musical continuity and particularly emotional power. In the end, however, I have to give preference to the Fiala version because of the marked superiority of the solo voices, which are not insignificant in this work. My regular readers know that I am extremely fussy when it comes to singers in choral or orchestral works that have them; most of the time, even one defective solo singer can make or break a performance for me. It is utterly beyond me why so many performances are given, and worse yet, released on record, with wobbly, strained or otherwise defective vocalists. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, I feel a bit sorry for them because I’m sure their lives must be a burden to them, knowing that every time they go out on a stage to sing they bring pain and suffering to their audiences. Death, particularly a swift and sudden death, is too good for them. They must be made to suffer as we suffer when listening to them.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my homily for today. Bottom line: buy this Fiala Requiem via downloads, boost the low range by 3 db and burn it to discs, and you will have an absolutely splendid performance to enjoy forever.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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