|Markéta Cukrová at a December Collegium 1704 concert.|
Asked in the late 1950s about the revival of interest in 18th-century Italian music, Igor Stravinsky said, “Vivaldi is greatly overrated, a dull fellow who composed the same concerto 600 times in a row.” Had Stravinsky been at Břevnov Monastery on Friday night to hear Collegium 1704 perform a selection of Vivaldi concertos and cantatas, he no doubt would have arched his eyebrows and shot a sour “I told you so” look. But for the crowd of Vivaldi enthusiasts who packed the monastery’s regal Teresian Hall, it was another night of enchantment.
Václav Luks and his ensemble handled Vivaldi with the same spirit and aplomb they bring to all their performances – which is to say, with intelligence, precision and uptempo enthusiasm. Luks chose five concertos from L’Estro Armonico for the program, which sounded a bit flat at the start, as if the relatively small space had compressed the sound into one dimension. But it opened up quickly, and by the third piece the music had taken on the depth and richness that is characteristic of the group.
The concertos were composed for one, two and four violins, and Luks took full advantage of his ensemble’s talents, rearranging the lead players and drawing some lush harmonies and lively runs from the various combinations. The violinists were not uniformly sharp, but the momentum of the music carried the pieces past specific notes and phrases, into that seductive realm where Vivaldi’s charms – repetitive though they may be – are irresistible, and you can’t help but let go and be carried away.
Alto Markéta Cukrová took the lead on two vocal pieces. On the first, Longe Mala Umbrae Terrores, she seemed uncomfortable with the language (Latin) and some of the trickier lines, not moving far out of a middle range and glossing over occasional flourishes. She was better on the concluding selection, Cessate, omai cessate, apparently more comfortable with the language (Italian) and generally stronger and clearer, especially on the extended high notes. Her reprise of a section of Cessate for the encore was particularly heartfelt.
One of the intangibles of Collegium 1704 performances is the attitude of the players, a focused group who combine discipline and vivacity as well as anybody on the early music circuit. That was especially evident at this concert – light lifting compared to the more nuanced and complex works the ensemble typically presents, which gave the players a chance to let loose and rock out, in a Baroque sort of way. By the end it was obvious how much fun they were having, an attitude that the audience picked up on and reciprocated with cheers and whoops. (Vivaldi does that to some people.)
This was Collegium 1704’s first appearance at Břevnov, in a room that normally hosts smaller ensembles of three or four players. It is a very good space for voices, and drawing room-clear for several instruments. But the 14-piece group that played there on Friday might have been a bit much, with the sound bordering on boisterous at times, even occasionally overwhelming Cukrová. No complaints from the audience, though, which would happily have cranked the volume even higher, and listened to the same concerto, over and over, late into the night.
Collegium 1704 maintains a very good website at: http://www.collegium1704.com/