DVORÁK: The Spectre's Bride
John Aler, tenor; Ivan Kusnjer, bass-baritone; Oksana Krovytska, soprano; Rider University Symphonic Choir; New Jersey Symphony Orch/Zdenek Macal, cond.
DELOS 3296 (F) (DDD) TT: 76:48

Hanoverian England (which became Victorian during the 19th century) had love affairs with several foreign musicians beginning with Handel, followed by Johann Christian Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and after a hiatus of some 40 years, Antonín Dvorák. It was the latter's Stabat Mater of 1880—commemorating the deaths of three children between 1875 and 1877—that took collective hold on Victorian sympathies following the London premiere in 1883. In addition to making personal appearances in 1884 as conductor-composer, Dvorák was commissioned by the publisher Novello to write a new choral work for the 1885 Birmingham Festival. After rejecting several texts, the composer decided to set a ghost story, “The Bride’s Nightgown,” by the same Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-70) whose “Garland of Folk Tales” inspired four superb tone poems he composed a decade later, after the Ninth Symphony.

Neither Novello nor Birmingham seemed to object that Dvorák premiered the new work at Pilsen (twice in fact) in March 1885, gave two more performances at Olmütz. and a fifth at Prague before he led the British premiere on August 27 of his new “dramatic cantata,” which Victorian sensibilities renamed The Spectre’s Bride. It was a huge success not only in performances throughout Great Britain but stateside, too, and as far away as Australia. For all that, it didn’t then, and doesn’t today, sound like the composer’s Czech-rooted music that has remained in the forefront of the international repertoire. Indeed there’s hardly a “Czech”-sounding passage in nearly 80 minutes which go on and on about a bride-to-be who waits patiently for an absent fiancé until a “spectre” appears in the latter's form and tries to woo her from her vows, etc. He is a dead man, not her lover (nor are two other corpses), and by resisting him she saves her soul.

Apart from John Aler's no-longer-ardent tenor, grown hard and tight from years of work, Delos has spared almost nothing to create a best-selling product. If Oksana Krovytska’s bride is initially tremulous of tone, she manages to control what after all is a natural vibrato as the performance proceeds. Best of the three soloists is Ivan Kussnjer, a Czech bass-baritone in his prime, as the story-teller. Zdenek Macal, who is the Czech Philharmonic’s new music director since last autumn, coaxes the New Jersey Symphony of Newark and Joseph Flummerfeldt's Westminster Symphonic Choir from Rider University at Princeton to give their hearty all. Very much in the plus column is John Eargle’s engineering expertise for producer David Frost, and the text—a long one—is included in English. With so much to commend, how disappointing that The Spectre’s Bride is second-drawer Dvorák. Still to come from Macal and Newark, however, during his current final season as music director emeritus, is a coupling of the Te Deum, Psalm 149 and three overtures. These, take my word for it as a devotee, are music from Dvorák’s top-drawer.

R.D. (October 2003)