Even Sadness Carries Hope. The March Concert at the Rudolfinum Offered Contemplation and a Connection with God

The concert programme named “Pianto napoletano” (Naples Weeping) at the Rudolfinum on 7 March 2023 presented the vocal-instrumental works of the Baroque masters of Naples: Alessandro Scarlatti, Tommaso Traetta, and Francesco Durante.

‘It can be said of Italian music in general, and southern Italian music in particular, that even with tragic themes, sadness is manifested in a slightly different way from that rekindled by works, for example, of the 19th century: That kind of heavy, gloomy sadness rarely appears in it. How many beautiful, sweet and touching melodies does Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater offer! This, I think, is inherent in the Italian soul in general: Even a sad message is filled with a certain hope. After all, the text of the ordinarium at the very beginning of Durante’s Requiem consists of the prayer “Let eternal light shine upon them”. Neapolitan composers were able to translate the hope in this light into their characteristic musical language with exceptional beauty,’ explains the conductor and artistic director of the Collegium 1704, Václav Luks.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725) was the first great composer to be associated with the Neapolitan musical style. Scarlatti’s Miserere in C Minor for five voices, strings and basso continuo is a refined example of a rendition of a psalm text in a concertante style. The penitential Psalm 51 was often musicalized and sung not only during so-called ‘Dark Hours’ of the Holy Week, but also on a number of other occasions, especially during Lent.

One of the most famous and influential sacred musical works of Neapolitan origin is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Tommaso Traetta (1727–1779), too, uses a solo soprano and alto in his later musicalization of the same text. However, he adds to them a four-voice choir, to which he entrusts important parts of the entire composition. The composer divides the extensive text of the famous mediaeval poem into independently rendered enclosed pieces. His mastery resides in the richness with which he internally differentiates the individual parts. From his Neapolitan teachers Nicola Porpora and Francesco Durante, Traetta acquired a sense of natural conception of vocal parts. These always retain their desired cantability, even during challenging coloratura lines.

The second half of the evening entitled ‘Pianto napoletano’ gave way to another kind of expressive mourning music: a mass for the dead. Among the countless authors that contributed to this genre over the 18th century, Francesco Durante occupies an important place. The audience at the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum had the pleasure to hear the Requiem a due cori – the most sweeping. It is the most extensive not only in its length, but also because of the performing apparatus required for its performance. This, in addition to strings and horns, includes eight singing voices grouped into two choirs. The great popularity of Durante’s requiem is evidenced by the existence of over forty surviving copies of the composition, which at the time were not printed, but reproduced by hand.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Performed by Collegium 1704 Shook the Foundations of the Rudolfinum

The programme of the symphonic concert entitled Apotheosis of Dance offered an authentic performance of works by three masters of the so-called Viennese Classicism of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, on period instruments under the baton of Václav Luks. Their work was a great synthesis of previous musical developments, and at the same time served as a source of inspiration and a model for future generations. On 14 February, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one of Joseph Haydn’s London Symphonies, and the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito riveted audiences in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum.

La clemenza di Tito is the second opera Mozart wrote specifically for Prague. It was a production hastily commissioned by the Czech Estates to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in the summer of 1791. In this late opera, Mozart once again returned to the genre of Italian opera seria. The opera was not well received by the noble courtiers, but it proved very popular with the people of Prague, was frequently performed, and in 1807 it was with La clemenza di Tito that the Italian opera company bid farewell to Prague.

Although Joseph Haydn is usually named as the first of the Viennese triple-star constellation, he outlived his colleague and friend twenty-four years younger than him by sixteen years and composed his greatest works after Mozart’s death. These include the so-called London Symphonies, works intended for a general audience, written for the widely attended London concert series organized by the English violinist Johann Peter Salomon. A number of these popular pieces have been given nicknames by which they are still known today. Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major has no such nickname, but its remarkable second movement is often referred to as Haydn’s “Requiem for Mozart”, the composer’s personal tribute to his late friend. Haydn probably began work on the symphony in the summer of 1791, but it was not completed until after the composer learned with certainty of Mozart’s death.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which provided the climax of the concert, is also famous for its second movement. Richard Wagner allegedly referred to Beethoven’s work when he wanted to illustrate the affinity between orchestral music and dance.

“Beethoven’s original, bristling handwriting still makes an immensely powerful and haunting impression today. Wagner’s account, I think, accurately describes the character of the whole symphony, the dance-like swirling which characterizes in particular the first and fourth movement. I am convinced that some dancing is also present in the second movement, which is often interpreted as a funeral march. However, Beethoven’s tempo is marked allegretto, so it would be fitting to strip it off the gloomy heaviness with which it is often played, and we shall endeavour to do so,” suggests Václav Luks, conductor and artistic director of Collegium 1704. “Beethoven left us metronomic indications, which are often very fast, but we also know that Beethoven himself and his pupil Carl Czerny were of the opinion that the metronomic indication marks only the initial tempo, a starting point to be developed further. They played around with the tempo much more than we are used to nowadays. Listeners can perceive quite a difference in this respect compared to what they hear in modern orchestras,” adds Václav Luks.

The Apotheosis of Dance follows up on previous Collegium 1704 projects that focus on authentic performances of works from musical eras other than the Baroque, with which the orchestra has gained worldwide fame. In 2021, for example, the ensemble successfully performed Bedřich Smetana’s My Country for the Prague Spring Festival, and last year, together with pianist Lukáš Vondráček, it presented Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G Minor at the Warsaw International Festival “Chopin i jego Europa”. In January this year, Václav Luks joined Handel and Haydn Society, Boston’s leading orchestra of period instruments, as guest conductor for the third time. On this occasion, Beethoven’s Eroica was performed on two nights.

Collegium 1704 Said Farewell to the Year 2022 with Vivaldi

As part of the Christmas concert on 6 December 2022, Vivaldi’s setting of the psalm Laudate Pueri was performed in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum under the direction of conductor Václav Luks, alongside concert works written for the Dresden orchestra in Vivaldi’s time. The programme was enriched with selected compositions of Johann Georg Pisendel, Vivaldi’s pupil and former Kapellmeister at the court of the Electorate of Saxony, and of Johann Friedrich Fasch, the court composer of the Dresden orchestra.

In the second decade of the 18th century, Antonio Vivaldi’s remarkable creative span reached its full breadth, ranging from sonatas and concerts to operas and liturgical music. Not only Vivaldi’s orchestral music, but also his liturgical works were known and performed in Dresden. Laudate pueri RV 601 is a typical example of Vivaldi’s late work from the early 1730s. The extensive setting of the psalm is intended for a solo voice accompanied by an orchestra including a transverse flute and two oboes reinforcing the violins.

The demanding solo part, reaching in a number of places the note d”’, indicates that Vivaldi had in mind a specific singer, whose identity is not known. During the concert, the psalm was performed by the German soprano Mirella Hagen who has become known to the Czech audience thanks to this year’s successful production of Handel’s opera Alcina in Brno, among other performances.

At the beginning and immediately after the intermission, two examples of a specific kind of concert written for a large ensemble, “concerto con molti stromenti”, which Vivaldi composed for the Dresden orchestra, were performed. These compositions have the structure of a solo concert, but in these solos, various instruments are used independently or in groups. Two violins (Ivan Iliev, Helena Zemanová), two oboes (Katharina Andres and Petra Ambrosi), and two French horns (Jiří Tarantík and Miroslav Rovenský) stood out in Vivaldi’s Concerto in F Major. After the intermission, the Concerto in G Minor followed, in which the composer employed two flutes (Julie Braná and Lucie Dušková) instead of French horns with great effect.

Handel’s Enchantment with Rome and Zelenka’s Last Sacred Compositions Enthralled the Sold-out Rudolfinum

On St Martin’s Day, an evening with Collegium 1704 at the Rudolfinum concert hall offered a juxtaposition of the breathtaking dynamics we encounter in the setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus, the first work composed by the young Georg Friedrich Handel during his stay in Rome, with the last mass composition of Jan Dismas Zelenka, Missa Omnium Sanctorum, which elevated the thousand-headed audience to heavenly heights.

Georg Friedrich Handel entered the great world of music probably at the end of 1705, thanks to an invitation to Florence by the influential nobleman and art admirer Gian Gastone de‘ Medici. However, the most significant part of the composer’s stay in Italy began only in 1707, when the 22-year-old ambitious composer arrived in Rome. Dixit Dominus was the first composition he started working on there. The dating of the piece (April 1707) indicates that the first performance may have taken place as part of the Easter vespers in the titular church of one of Handel’s patrons, Cardinal Ottoboni, San Lorenzo in Damaso. However, the church of Maria in Monte Santo is usually considered the place of its first performance. There, in July 1707, Handel performed other psalm settings for ceremonial vespers (Laudate pueri and Nisi Dominus), commissioned by Cardinal Colonna.

“Handel seems to have inserted his awe of Roman Baroque architecture into the musical psalm Dixit Dominus. Flamboyant architectural arches, the ecstatic prance of gigantic figures, the masses of waters bursting in cascades of artificial waterfalls and fountains of Roman squares, but also places imbued with the mystery of the eternal city’s ancient history. All of this was encountered by young Handel in Rome and Dixit Dominus represents a kind of musical transformation of the architecture of Baroque Rome,” says Václav Luks, the artistic director and conductor of Collegium 1704.

At the end of his life, in 1740, Jan Dismas Zelenka began to work on his last extensive project, which he however never completed. The composition Missa Dei Patris in C Major was to be the first of the six of what he called the Last Masses (Missae ultimae). When Zelenka died on the night of 22 December 1745, he left only a torso of this planned mass cycle – a total of three parts, including the final, sixth part named Missa Omnium Sanctorum, completed in 1741.

“Missa Omnium Sanctorum lacks the previously typical large orchestral cast with trumpets, French horns and timpani. However, it is a work filled with a deep feeling for the text that was put to the music, and it is part of the most remarkable project of the composer’s last years,” adds Václav Luks.

This St Martin’s Day concert at the Rudolfinum gave the floor exclusively to soloists from the vocal ensemble Collegium Vocale 1704, namely to the sopranos Tereza Zimková, Pavla Radostová and Helena Hozová, the altos Kamila Mazalová and Aneta Petrasová, the tenor Ondřej Holub, and the basses Tomáš Šelc and Tadeáš Hoza.