Sts. Simon & Jude Church
What better way to ring in the new year than with Händel’s glorious Messiah? Collegium 1704 served up a fiery performance of the popular oratorio Friday night that brought a capacity crowd to its feet and lent a radiant glow to the frosty streets of Old Town.
Conductor and artistic director Václav Luks led a group that was ideal for the sanctuary space at Sts. Simon and Jude – 20 musicians, 16 choral singers and four soloists. The sound was rich and full, yet perfectly clear. And there was no cutting corners with content. The ensemble performed the complete work, which with intermission runs nearly three hours. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear and appreciate the full piece, especially given the high caliber of the performance.
Luks set a brisk tempo with the opening “Sinfonia,” seguing quickly to the prophecy of salvation, sung by tenor Eric Stoklossa. He proved to be the most versatile singer of the cast, taking full advantage of the ornamentation possibilities in the score. The chorus followed, sounding perhaps the best that it has all year, vibrant and spirited without losing any of the complexity or nuances of the music. Luks is masterful at drawing out the subtleties of anything he conducts, while giving free rein to vocals that seem to soar heavenward. In this performance, the male voices, which provide an earthly anchor for the divine sopranos and altos, were particularly good.
The other soloists were uniformly strong. Marián Krejčík showed surprising range for a bass singer, and excellent diction. Soprano Alena Hellerová and alto Markéta Cukrová were also strikingly fluent with the English-language text. Hellerová has a fine facility for Baroque phrasing, and Cukrová offered her usual combination of sensitive expression and technical skill.
One of the hallmarks of Collegium 1704’s sound is its balance, which is a challenge in this work. Typically, the chorus runs away with the piece, especially in the signature “Hallelujah” movement. Luks managed not only to keep the instruments and vocals in balance, but create a dialogue between the two, giving the piece fluidity and momentum without sacrificing any of its riveting singular moments. The sweep of music with those kind of dynamics is irresistible, and made the three hours pass quickly.
The other intangible that Collegium 1704 brings to the early music repertoire is its exuberance, a sense of joy and spontaneity that transcends anything on the printed page. This was in full bloom Friday night, evident in everything from the smiles on the violin players’ faces to the energy of the music as it burst from the stage like a shower of confetti and balloons. There are other ways to interpret the Messiah, but it would hard to surpass this one for emotional power and eloquence.
So it seemed only natural that, as the echoes of a “Hallelujah” encore reverberated through the church, the audience rose to its feet with a wave of applause and cries of “Bravo!” Prague audiences will give a standing ovation to almost anything these days, but this one was honestly earned and well-deserved. Luks and his ensemble provided an effervescent start to the new year, and may have spoiled their fans. Future New Year’s Eves will seem paltry indeed without an inspired performance like this one.