Our Lady of the Snows
|Luks and his ensemble at the gates of heaven.|
Good music should take you somewhere – on a journey, through an idea, or to places you’ve never been before. Baroque offers both unique opportunities and challenges in this regard. There may be no other genre of Western music that is so instantly and unmistakably from another era; the tempo alone forces you to readjust your inner rhythms. Yet the obsession with rendering it authentically can sometimes yield a sterile product, technically perfect but soulless.
Collegium 1704 performs Baroque with a passion, a punctilious version of the music that soars with energy and glows with feeling. It has a transformative effect – so much so that when an early movement in this concert ended, and the noise of a car engine became audible, I was momentarily startled. It was like two centuries had collided, or a spiritual ascension had suddenly crash-landed.
Granted, part of the effect was the setting. When I wrote last week that hearing Collegium 1704 in a church is the closest you can get to heaven on earth, it was obvious hyperbole. But Our Lady of the Snows, the tallest church in Prague, has a dazzlingly ornate, towering reredos (wall behind the altar) peopled with some of the liveliest statuary in the city. Cascades of angels and saints all seem to be reacting to events below, and you have to crane your neck to see Christ on the Cross at the top. If you’re looking for heaven, you’re halfway there.
The music will take you the rest of the way – in this case, two Bach cantatas for a large ensemble that included 13 singers, timpani and three horns. The first, Gott ist Mein König (BWV 71), opened with a pop and moved fluidly through the brief but complex instrumental score, supporting ethereal vocals from four of the singers. The interplay of the woodwinds and bass was particularly sweet. The second and much longer piece, Ich Hatte Viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21), featured luminous choral work and angelic vocals from local soprano and Baroque specialist Hana Blažiková. Once again, the woodwinds supplied some vivid colors. The final movement, with the full chorus and horns hitting high notes and volume, sounded like a call for the gates of heaven to be opened.
Writing about the music more precisely is difficult because, in the hands of conductor Václav Luks, it is incredibly seductive. Analytical distance quickly dissipates under his deft touch, which is pronounced yet light, expressive without ever losing a single beat or note. There’s no one who knits together a Baroque score so delicately and at the same time so precisely. Luks is seriously devoted to the scholarship of this music, but in performance he pulls it off with great spontaneity.
In short, hearing Collegium 1704 is an experience. The atmospherics are engaging, the music is superb and the execution is exquisite – but the sum of all that is something else, a flight to another space and time. Just ask the angels and saints.