Under the baton of Václav Luks, Handel’s Semele was performed for the first time at the prestigious Glyndebourne opera festival

For the second time this year, Václav Luks, conductor and artistic director of Collegium 1704, has taken up the leadership of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London’s period instrument orchestra, as part of his residency at Glyndebourne. A new stage performance of George Frederick Handel’s Semele was given its festival premiere on 23 July. The festival organizers have scheduled a total of 11 reprises, running until the end of August.

“The Glyndebourne Festival is a grand and prestigious event, the biggest opera festival in England and one of the most important festivals in Europe. It features almost exclusively artists from the British Isles, and Handel traditionally occupies a very important place in its programme. I deeply appreciate the invitation to conduct one of Handel’s operas in England, which I received from the festival organisers some four or five years ago, especially as I am one of the few guest artists here. I am very much looking forward to the typically British atmosphere in general. So far, I’ve only been able to observe it keenly from afar. Apart from the opera house in Glyndebourne, it is also created by the very sophisticated, educated, and demanding British audiences, who, of course, also know how to savour life and enjoy not only quality music, but also, for example, a picnic at this popular English pleasure trip spot. Glyndebourne is inseparable from this summer holiday spirit,” explained prior to his departure to England Václav Luks.

Luks has been working on the new staging in London since the beginning of June, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London’s period instrument orchestra, Welsh director Adele Thomas, the performer of the title role, American soprano Joélle Harvey, British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston (Juno), British tenor Stuart Jackson (Jupiter), and other soloists.

Soprano Joélle Harvey as Semele (right).

The original audiences of Handel’s opera Semele, a story full of desire and sensuality set to equally passionate music, were in for a shock. Instead of a traditional Handelian biblical drama, they were confronted with a host of lascivious Roman gods and their deadly plots. Far from being a spiritual drama, Semele is a provocatively secular tale of seduction, adultery, and revenge. “Combining the sexual intrigue of classical myth with the solo virtuosity of Italian opera and the choral splendour of oratorio, Semele is the best of all worlds, a piece that rewrites the theatrical rules,” according to festival organisers.

Soprano Joélle Harvey as Semele.

Glyndebourne is located on the edge of the South Downs National Park in East Sussex. Landowner and producer John Christie and his wife, opera singer Audrey Mildmay, co-founded the festival there in 1934. It is currently held from May to August, offering a programme of six operas in the opera house which holds an audience of 1,200. Glyndebourne also hosts open days for families, exhibitions of artworks and archival materials, and an autumn season of opera performances and concerts that puts rising stars in the spotlight. In addition, there are educational and outreach programmes all year round.

Apart from Handel’s Semele, this year’s festival will offer the Glyndebourne premiere performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and, for the first time in more than a decade, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The other three productions this year are Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Donizetti’s great romantic comedy The Elixir of Love.

photographs: Petra Hajská, Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions

Collegium 1704 Enters New Season at the Rudolfinum with a Chopin Programme

Collegium 1704 has announced the programme of its upcoming concert season, which has been organised in parallel in the Czech Republic and Germany as part of the Prague – Dresden Music Bridge since 2015. The programme features musical gems from the Baroque era, as well as major works from later stylistic periods.

“We still define ourselves as a Baroque orchestra, and Baroque repertoire makes up eighty percent of our activities. I see these excursions into later stylistic periods as a welcome source of renewal and a new challenge. This variety has had a great response from our audiences, as our first performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony this past season can attest. Because the response has been so overwhelmingly positive, I have decided to build on the ‘Seventh’, and next year in February we will be performing Beethoven’s famous Eroica. The decision to include this particular work in the programme is also linked to the fact that recently, I have been often cooperating with the Handel & Haydn Society period instrument orchestra in Boston as a guest conductor. Music from around 1800 is a dominant part of their repertoire, they are very interested in Beethoven, and I have been invited to conduct several of these programmes,” explains Václav Luks, conductor and artistic director of Collegium 1704. According to Luks, the concert will moreover offer an interesting confrontation of Eroica with the Symphony in D Minor “La Tempesta” by Paul Wranitzky, Beethoven’s close collaborator and an influential figure of Viennese musical life at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The second diversion from the orchestra’s Baroque core repertoire springs from another long-term cooperation with an important international institution, this time with the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. “This year I will be conducting Polish musicians at the finals of the prestigious Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition, which is dedicated to historic pianos. The two Chopin piano concertos will be performed. A few days later, the audience at the Rudolfinum will also hear one of these concertos, in our performance, with the new laureate of the competition as soloist,” Luks explains, adding that the orchestra will announce the name of the soloist and the choice of the Chopin concerto on 16 October.

The November evening at the Rudolfinum will take the audience back in time to the beginnings of the Baroque with the music of Claudio Monteverdi. His Marian Vespers is at the same time a work that foreshadowed the direction of European thought for centuries to come, and therefore still inspires admiration and respect today. In December, the audience can look forward to hearing two jewels of the High Baroque performed by Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704: Missa Corporis Domini by Jan Dismas Zelenka will be performed for the first time, together with the setting of the Marian hymn known as Magnificat, one of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s most popular compositions ever.

Handel’s Messiah in a legendary performance by Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 in April 2011

The works of another Baroque giant, Georg Friedrich Handel, have in many cases been extraordinarily popular from the very beginning. Next March, his oratorio Messiah will once more enchant listeners at the Rudolfinum. The solo parts will be performed by acclaimed international vocalists: Belgian soprano Deborah Cachet, American alto Avery Amereau, Polish tenor Krystian Adam, and Italian bass Luigi De Donato.

De Donato will also be the protagonist of the final programme of the season, Il Polifemo. Together with Collegium 1704, De Donato will present various Baroque settings of ancient Greek mythical narratives focused on figure of the one-eyed and three-fingered cyclop Polyphemus.

The visual style of the season will once again be based on the poetic illustrations of the versatile artist and man of theatre Matěj Forman. This time it will be a selection from his illustrations for the Albatros publishing house, originally used in František Hrubín’s book From One Spring to the Next.

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.

Extraordinary live recording of Má vlast (My Homeland) performed by Collegium 1704 released on CD

The recording of the 2021 Prague Spring Festival opening concert, at which Smetana’s Má vlast (My homeland) was performed by the Collegium 1704 orchestra under the baton of Václav Luks, has now been released by the Belgian label Accent, which has been cooperating with the orchestra for a long time.

“We approach Smetana’s legacy with great respect and deep humility for the great Czech tradition of interpretation of this work. Our performance is not a museum reconstruction, but a reminder of the aesthetic ideals of the romantic interpretation of Smetana’s time, which can be an inspiration for contemporary performers and audiences,” says the conductor Václav Luks about the recording.

“This performance of My Homeland left us with immense joy and encouragement, even though the whole project was created in extremely difficult conditions of pandemic measures. The energy of the musicians of the Collegium 1704 orchestra and the tireless research of the founder and the conductor Václav Luks have brought a timeless account of the seemingly familiar and explored work of Bedřich Smetana. The joy of the concert is now enhanced by this audio recording,” said Pavel Trojan, the director of Prague Spring.

The opening concert of Prague Spring 2021 was received with enthusiasm by both the audience and the critics. “No fake romance. Collegium 1704 opened Prague Spring in a groundbreaking way,” wrote music publicist Dita Hradecká for aktualne.cz after the concert.

The opening concert of Prague Spring 2021 was broadcast live by Czech Television and Czech Radio. The recording, which was released on CD with an iconic photograph from the Invasion 68 series by the world-renowned Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, was created in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House on 12 and 13 May 2021. The music was directed by Markéta Janáčková, and the master of sound was Filip Beneš. The CD will be available in Czech and international distributions, on the websites collegium1704.com and festival.cz, as well as at the Collegium 1704 concerts in the Rudolfinum.

Collegium 1704 opened the new concert season with the thrilling Handel oratorio Israel in Egypt

After successful summer tours around Europe, the baroque orchestra Collegium 1704 returned to its Prague audience. After this year’s exceptionally warm receptions at the prestigious international festival in Besançon, France, and at the domestic St. Wenceslas Music Festival in Ostrava, Handel’s Israel in Egypt made the Prague audience give a thunderous standing ovation.

Israel in Egypt occupies a special place among Handel’s oratorios. Named characters are absent and, unlike the more famous Messiah, it is epic and choral sections predominate.  

“The chorus has the main role in this work, the solo parts are few. The choral parts are extremely dramatic, large, and demanding, not only in terms of coloratura but also when it comes to sustaining phrases. It’s a big challenge, but I believe we will meet it well,” said soprano Helena Hozová, one of the soloists and a member of the ensemble Collegium Vocale 1704, after the rehearsal before the concerts in Besançon and Ostrava. At the Rudolfinum, she was be joined by other soloists, including soprano Tereza Zimková, British countertenor Alex Potter, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho, and basses Tomáš Šelc and Tadeáš Hoza.

In his rendition of the Old Testament exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, which premiered in April 1739, Handel managed to recount the plot through musical means with such intensity, inventiveness, and conviction that the audience was literally breathless. The double-choir concept, the use of trombones, and the choir’s absolutely unheard-of recitative on the words ‘He sent a thick darkness’ contributed to this effect. Another largely experimental field for Handel were the arias, composed not to verse but to a biblical narrative in English. Later he produced only one oratorio set entirely to biblical prose – his Messiah, with a libretto by Charles Jennens based on New Testament texts, was premiered during the composer’s stay in Dublin in April 1742.

The oratorio Israel in Egypt deals exclusively with Old Testament texts. In the first part, a choral epic containing drastic descriptions of the plagues brought upon Egypt, Handel set mostly verses from Old Testament psalms. The second part, in which the Israelites praise the mighty acts of the Lord, is based on the almost complete 15th chapter of Exodus. While composing, Handel made extensive use of whole musical movements or sections from works by earlier composers, Alessandro Stradella, Dionigi Erba, Francesco Uriano, and Johann Kaspar Kerll. From his own works, he reused two keyboard fugues or single movements from Dixit Dominus and from the cantata Armida abbandonata.

Mysliveček’s oratorio Abramo ed Isacco to be performed for the first time at the prestigious Salzburger Festspiele

For the sixth time, Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 under the direction of conductor Václav Luks will appear at the Salzburger Festspiele. The concert takes place on 23 July 2022 at 6 pm in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall. After works by Bach, Biber, Monteverdi, Stradella, and Zelenka, the ensemble will present a masterpiece by Josef Mysliveček in a Salzburg premiere. Mysliveček’s oratorio Abramo ed Isacco (Abraham and Isaac) will be performed with an outstanding international cast of soloists, including Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen (Isacco), French tenor Mathias Vidal (Abramo), Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy (Sara), German soprano Nikola Hillebrand (Angelo), and her compatriot, baritone Matthias Winckhler (Gamari).

Václav Luks, conductor and artistic director of the orchestra, comments on the performance: “I am delighted that after a number of performances with world repertoire, we have managed to introduce a purely Czech programme into the Salzburg Festival’s dramaturgy. The fact that Josef Mysliveček’s most famous oratorio will be performed is also of special significance in relation to the planned premiere of Il Boemo, a film about the life of the composer which was made in close cooperation with Collegium 1704.”

The oratorio Abramo ed Isacco (Abraham and Isaac), originally titled Isacco, figura del redentore (Isaac, figure of the saviour), is Mysliveček’s last oratorio and represents one of the absolute highlights of his entire oeuvre. It premiered in Florence in 1776 and the following year was performed in Munich, at the court of the music-loving Elector Maximilian III. Joseph. At the Salzburg Festival, it will be presented as part of a concert series entitled Ouverture spirituelle.

According to surviving documentation, Mysliveček composed eight oratorios over a period of seven years; complete scores are available for only four of them. Collegium 1704 has so far performed the Easter oratorio La Passione di Gesù Cristo to great acclaim, as part of the Prague Spring Festival in 2013.

Václav Luks Receives French Award for Service to Culture

Collegium 1704 conductor and artistic director Václav Luks received the Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) with the rank of Knight from Ambassador Alexis Dutertre during a ceremony at the French Embassy in Prague on 21 June 2022. The Order is conferred by the French Minister for Culture for distinguished services in the field of culture, arts, and literature.

Václav Luks has a number of unique achievements in the interpretation of French musical repertoire. For instance, with Collegium 1704, he made the second-ever complete recording of Rameau’s opera Les Boréades, which won the prestigious awards Trophées 2021 and Edison 2021 for the Opera Recording of the Year.

In the past, the Order of Arts and Letters has been conferred on a number of prominent personalities who connect Czech and French culture, such as mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, composer Petr Eben, director Jiří Menzel, and former president and playwright Václav Havel. More recent recipients include photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková, director Andrea Sedláčková, and illustrator Lucie Lomová.