Saturday, March 17, 2012


Czech Museum of Music
March 10
Sts. Simon & Jude Church
March 13

Collegium 1704 performing Schuster's La passione in Dresden.

Two Baroque concerts this past week offered an intriguing opportunity to compare contrasting styles from Central and Southern Europe. Both ensembles – Prague’s Collegium 1704 and Rome’s Concerto Italiano – are highly regarded for their scholarship and meticulous performing standards. The Italian group is more famous, with nearly 50 recordings and 15 years of world tours to its credit. The Czech group, founded in 2005, has so far concentrated its performance and recording activities in the Czech Republic, Germany and France.

Václav Luks, Collegium 1704’s founder and artistic director, took on a considerable challenge staging German composer Joseph Schuster’s La passione di Gesù Cristo at the Czech Museum of Music. Written in 1778, the piece has been out of circulation for a long time, and Luks himself questioned its value when he first studied the score. Then there are the acoustics of the museum’s soaring central lobby, where music tends to break up and echo in shards.

So it was a thrill to hear the warm, full sound of the orchestra, chorus and soloists fill the space and hold together, losing only a slight bit of definition. And the piece itself is gorgeous, a lyrical four-person oratorio with a libretto by Pietra Metastasia in which Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea and St. John answer St. Peter’s questions about the crucifixion. Almost too joyous for such a somber occasion, the music brims with the spirit and flavor of Mozart and Haydn – indeed, some of Schuster’s later works were once thought to be Mozart copies.

Aside from Václav Čižek, whose modern operatic tenor was a surprisingly good fit for the role of St. Peter, the vocalists were inconsistent. Soprano Dora Pavlíková couldn’t quite pull off the fancy coloratura runs, though she had some heartbreakingly beautiful duets with Čižek. Tenors Eric Stoklossa (Joseph) and Sébastian Monti (John) sounded best in the musical breaks, when their voices did not have to compete with the orchestra.

But the orchestra itself was superb, playing with a beguiling mix of energy and discipline. An eight-piece violin section added depth to the sound, which Luks used to full advantage, giving the piece radiance and momentum. His conducting was so precise that the music fairly snapped at times. This balance between expression and control, the ability to bring the music to life with a physical enthusiasm that does not violate its spirit or form, is the trademark of Collegium 1704’s sound. It is passionate, uplifting, ebullient and joyful.

Thoroughly Italian Alessandrini.
Concerto Italiano strikes a different profile: stately, restrained, elegant without ornamentation. The group came to Prague as a six-piece ensemble, including founder and artistic director Rinaldo Alessandrini, who conducted from the harpsichord. Their program had an academic cast to it, tracing the development of various musical forms in 17th-century Italy through composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi, Giovanni Bononcini and Giuseppe Torelli.

There were only a few obvious pauses between the 13 pieces, making the forms hard to distinguish. But that kept the focus on the playing, which was exquisite. The ensemble’s sound was both organic and transparent, with an integrity and clarity that only very good groups achieve. Even the sweet, high harmonies of the violins were clean and understated.

Still, the music was more cerebral than heartfelt, refined to the point of dryness. There was hardly a flutter of expression – no variation in volume, tempo or tone. The even temper carries a strong air of authenticity; close your eyes, and the sound transports you back three centuries. But the stiff bearing and lack of emotion are a striking contrast to the way Collegium 1704, and for that matter most Baroque groups in Prague, play the music.

It may not be fair to compare two entirely different programs. And certainly neither group can be judged better than the other. After all, Baroque was hardly a monolithic form; many different styles of playing sprang up throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, which has made the process of rediscovering the music far more interesting and rewarding.

It’s a tribute to groups like Collegium 1704 and Concerto Italiano that they have managed to preserve and perform distinctly different styles so well. Asked about the success of his ensemble, Alessandrini said, “It’s very strongly connected to our culture – we are Italian, so we do mainly Italian music.” Fans of the form would do well to follow the same ethnic lines of exploration.

For more about Collegium 1704:

For more about Concerto Italiano:

Top photo courtesy of Collegium 1704; Alessandrini by Eric Larrayadieu

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