It is impossible to choose one masterpiece from Antonín Dvořák’s oeuvre, since it includes several great works of art
Why would anyone prioritise Symphony No. 8 or 9, the Cello Concerto, the Dumky Trio, the Serenade in E major, Rusalka or the Piano Quintet in A major? They are of varying lengths, genre and spirit – yet, one thing they have in common is that they are all astonishing feats, the products of creative maximalism, where there is no room for comparison. Requiem (Op. 89, 1890) is another genuine opus magnum – both in terms of its length, power and seriousness. Still, it is subject to disinterest from later generations, who rarely fall back on it, and only include it in their concert programmes after several seasons have already passed. Neglect is particularly noticeable when we examine how many times this piece written by the 49-year old composer has been performed so far, compared to the two favourite sorrowful pieces (by Mozart and Verdi). Why is that? A Requiem performance is a rare but good opportunity to give the matter careful thought. This autumn, the first programme of a new festival called Bridging Europe, a joint initiative by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Palace of Arts aimed at highlighting the various intellectual values of the continent, focused on the Czech Republic – Requiem was performed on the first evening of this series.
A few minutes into the one hour and forty-five minute long piece, after the Requiem aeternam, Dies irae and Tuba mirum, we had little doubt that Dvořák fully intended to differ in music. After Verdi’s depressingly significant and popular Requiem composed almost a decade and a half earlier, the Czech artist felt that he could only create his own peculiar partiture if he composed music in a different way. Right there he meant something else by the concept of funeral mass. First of all, much less theatricality – if it was even there at all. But he even had a different attitude towards composing than Verdi, who was brave enough to incorporate silken and beautiful opera hits full of emotion into his own Requiem. The opuses mentioned in the introduction prove that Dvořák could also write breathtakingly beautiful melodies, or rather, these were his most significant pieces: the sweet and lovely, lyrical or even dynamic Czech melos, which conquers the audience in the same way as Magda Vášáryová’s beguiling smile in Menzel’s Shortcuts. But what would Dvořák have done with beguiling Czech melodies in a Requiem? He had to find some other way, and this endeavour resulted in a specific asceticism on the one hand, and in “archaic modernism” on the other hand, which may be known from works written by one of his models, Brahms. He opted for a fundamental four-note musical idea (F - G flat - E - F – already present at the very beginning of the partiture), and this mi-fa-ri-mi theme, being a narrow-range chromatic scale that resembles both the Baroque melodies of sufferings and the atonality of 20th-century music, dominates the whole piece in various forms, appearing hundreds of times almost as a monothematic composition.
Is this tune beautiful? Well, no. Attractive? Pleasant to listen to? Same answer. But if the question is whether it implies discipline and aloofness, expressing the fear and anxiety of those who wrestle with their conscience before death, then we murmur yes. Dvořák knew his craft and composed a piece that is economically structured, as gloomy as its subject matter, and therefore not “listener-friendly”. Accordingly, the aesthetics of his work are unusual. This austere beauty can only be enjoyed by listeners after doing some intellectual work, and in order to recognise this austere beauty, or rather, the qualities of the piece, we need a practised conductor. A conductor like Iván Fischer, who is a great interpreter and noble propagator of Dvořák’s music, who rendered the Requiem wholeheartedly and affectionately, showing its true character little by little and guiding the audience to understand that the supposed lack of ideas during the first half hour is in fact backed by a concept: voluntary confinement and a rigid manner of phrasing. Fischer’s elevated rendering also drew our attention to the inflexion beginning in the second part with the Offertorium, smoothly leading to more melodious passages – i.e. traditionally more “beautiful” tunes – than the previous ones. This stylistic duality did not shatter either the piece (which is prevented by the monothematic characteristic that prevails throughout the composition) or the performance, which revealed the darkness, seriousness and monumentality of Requiem, leaving no doubt that this piece is a masterpiece. The performance delivered by the soloist quartet – Juliane Banse, Jolana Fogašová, Peter Berger, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester – was world class; interestingly, however, the great star Banse’s singing seemed to be less precise and fine. The Festival Orchestra authentically expressed the characteristic abstraction and dark colours of the piece. Requiem’s vocal part was performed by the Czech Philharmonic Choir (Brno; choirmaster: Petr Fiala) in a wonderful and richly coloured manner with real style. 14 September – Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. Arrangement: Budapest Festival Orchestra, Palace of Arts
muzsikalendarium.hu, Kristóf Csengery