Arts Comment

The saint who brought the best out of Dvořák

St Ludmila

You think you know Antonín Dvořák’s music quite well when you are aware not just of his greatest hits but also of the fascinating early symphonies and the dear early string quartets. When you know not only the moving Stabat Mater but also the prickly Requiem; and not just the cello concerto but also the violin and piano concertos. When, among his operas, you’ve seen not just Rusalka, but also heard (of) The Devil and Kate. And just then comes around the corner a work you maybe haven’t heard of – an embarrassingly beautiful one – that puts all your supposed Dvořák expertise into perspective: the oratorio Svatá Ludmila.

And while many of Dvořák’s routinely overlooked works are – for all their beauty – ultimately minor or slightly lesser works, Saint Ludmila is decidedly a major work, every bit as wonderful as the Stabat Mater and far more accessible than the densely wound Requiem. The music is so good, it works beautifully even without following the libretto, although the new recording on Naxos that has brought Ludmila back to my attention happily provides one.

The setting: a pagan celebration of budding spring at Mělnik Castle (in an idyllic city where the Elbe and Vltava meet). Young Ludmila (Adriana Kohútková in this 2015 live performance), still years away from being canonised and becoming a patron saint of Bohemia, laps it up; the oceanic feeling stirs strongly within her.

Enter the hermit Ivan, a composite character part John of Rila and part St Methodius, who preaches a fire-and-brimstone kind of monotheism. Pagan Ludmila sees how there might be something to that – and, for the second act, agrees to follow Ivan into the forest, wishing – or so she later tells in her side of the story – to find the one true God. But the forest isn’t empty and she encounters pagan prince Bořivoj. He takes one good look at Ludmila and he sees how there might be something to that, too – even if it means also converting to her newfound religion.

Theologically speaking, this might be a sketchy motive to adopt Catholicism and then press it on the rest of the population; but who is to say it’s an unreasonable one? A chorus of angels is at hand to approve of the proceedings. The third act is a grand Mass and mass baptism at Velehrad.

Dvořák sprinkles old folk elements into his pagan choruses, but the proto-Czech wine flows from Georg Friedrich Handelian skins. The musical result – in turn rousing, lyrical and flowing with silvery ease – is unique and not typical Dvořák. Antonín uses very few Dvořákisms while drawing on a wide range of inspirations, which variously might include (or at least sound like) late Wagner, Mendelssohn and Mozart.

The work ends with a medieval song which Dvořák transforms from a ceremonial march into a towering, glorious concluding hymn. Apparently Dvořák poured everything into his Saint Ludmila, to the point of endangering his health. The commission came from the Leeds Festival in 1884, on the heels of his very successful Stabat Mater there.

The organisers requested a work with a biblical theme suitable for its English and international audience, lasting about 90 minutes. When Dvořák responded with Saint Ludmila – rather more a specifically Czech story and in uncut performance close to two and a half hours, they initially balked before accepting it. Wisely so: the performance ended up one of Dvořák’s great successes.

This thrilling live performance of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra under Leoš Svárovský, caught in fine sound, takes its scissors to the score and cuts some 20 numbers. If that’s what it takes (especially reasonable in concert) to bring this grand but never overwrought oratorio to greater popularity, then splendid.

If anyone wants the whole thing, Gerd Albrecht’s recording with the WDR Symphony seems the only truly complete one (issued on Orfeo and now part of Brilliant Classics’ box set Dvořák – Complete Sacred Choral Music), while Václav Smetáček’s more leisurely but still grand 1963 studio recording with the Prague Symphony Orchestra (part of Supraphon’s indispensable Dvořák – Sacred Works & Cantatas box) comes pretty close.

The excellent Slovak Philharmonic Choir on the Naxos recording occasionally slips from enthusiasm into roaring, but that’s only appropriate for excited peasants seeing the light of the Saviour for the first time. The singers don’t quite match the soloists of Albrecht or Smetáček, except for tenor Tomáš Černý (Bořivoj) whose pleasantly light timbre is reminiscent of Klaus Florian Vogt’s. A delight altogether.

Jens F Laurson is a classical music critic-at-large