It’s hard to think of a major work by a major composer that’s as uncelebrated as Antonín Dvorák’s “Stabat Mater.” Begun in 1876 and completed the following year, this sacred cantata takes its text from the 13th-century Latin poem that depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross and lamenting her son’s death. (“Stabat Mater dolorosa,” the first line, means “The grieving mother was standing.”) The poem has been set by a who’s who of composers, ranging from Palestrina and Haydn to Rossini, Liszt, Poulenc, and Pärt, but at close to 90 minutes, Dvorák’s treatment is by far the most expansive. Thursday at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conveyed its many moods, from reverence to anguish to ecstasy.
The evening started on an especially somber note, however. Composer and conductor André Previn had died earlier in the day, and the BSO honored him with a fervent, fluid rendition of “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”
Dvorák’s “Stabat Mater” was a response to the recent deaths of his first three children; he may also have been stimulated by the atmosphere at St. Adalbert’s in Prague, where he was church organist at the time. He apportioned the text of the poem — 20 stanzas of three lines each — into 10 parts. In the first two of these, the vocalists describe Mary’s grief. Thereafter, starting with stanza nine, they address Mary directly, asking to join in her weeping, to share Christ’s Passion, to be defended by her, and to be granted the glory of Paradise.
The work premiered in Prague in 1880 and was a huge success. It was even huger when the composer himself led it at London’s Royal Albert Hall, in 1884: he had a chorus of 840 and an orchestra that included 92 strings. The BSO gave its first performance of “Stabat Mater” in 1891, in Louisville, Ky.; since then the orchestra has presented the complete work just once, under Seiji Ozawa, in 1981.
It’s not an easy piece to conduct. Dvorák tempo markings fall into the limited range from Andante to Largo. If the Andante con moto sections are allowed to drag, the piece can seem like a grayer version of Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem.”
Nelsons’s reading was anything but gray. He balanced the four soloists and the 106 voices of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus against a pared-down orchestra with just 46 strings, and there was no drag in the 82-minute running time. He built drama from the opening sequence of F-sharps and descending lines that suggest the descent from the cross. He conveyed the waltzy sections of Part I, the limping-funeral-march rhythm of Part II (with its English-horn cameo), the lilting (and in this case quick) Siciliana of Part V, the choral triumph of Part VI, the steady tread of Part IX, the exultant D-major conclusion. If there didn’t always seem as much tempo variation as Dvorák calls for, there was always ample dynamic contrast.
The soloists — soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen, mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana, tenor Dmytro Popov, bass Matthew Rose — were vocally gratifying; I especially liked Popov’s grit and thrust and Rose’s smooth, full bass. Projection of the text was variable, however (Dvorák doesn’t always make this easy), and diction could have been better. The TFC sounded oddly muted and muffled, as if singing softly got in the way of enunciating clearly. At times it seemed a quieter orchestra was called for. Matters improved as the evening went on, from the celestial “Sancta Maria” of Part IV and “Virgo virginum” of Part VII to the prayerful closing “Paradisi gloria.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Feb. 28. Remaining performances: March 1–2. Tickets $37-$149. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org