Magnificent, sublime. Such was the concert Martinů Voices gave on 19 December at the Martinů Hall in Prague, on the penultimate evening of the 21st Bohuslav Martinů Days festival. Even though one could have clearly anticipated that Lukáš Vasilek, the conductor of the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and his own chamber ensemble would give a great performance, the evening might even have surpassed the highest expectations. The programme, compiled with regard to the festival itself and in relation to the season, featured music by Bohuslav Martinů and his pupil Jan Novák, as well as two “winter” pieces by Francis Poulenc – Four Motets for the Christmas Season and the chamber cantata A Night of Snow.

The five scores were delivered gorgeously, each presented in line with their own character, yet all of them under a common denominator – impeccable interpretation, with every detail well-considered, narrowly measured, prepared at length and all the conceivable parameters reliably taken heed of. Although not casual, yet meticulously rehearsed, the performance was evidently profoundly enjoyed, vivid, vigorous and animate, inspired at the given moment.

Such a result simply cannot arise from anything but passionate work, healthy doubts and almost fanatical seeking of details and their rendition in as ideal and satisfactory a form as possible. And what are the details? A homogenous sound, pure tuning, conjoint breathing, unified diction and a seemingly limitless inventory of transformations of the dynamics, tempo and expression. When brought to bear, such transformations constitute infinite combinations, with the musical current breathing and alive.

Lukáš Vasilek and his ensemble gave a taste of the above mentioned right at the beginning, in the first piece on the programme Martinů’s Four Songs about the Virgin Mary. Their elaborate performance, observing the lyrics’ tinges and points, the tiny nuances in the texture, seeking well-balanced and highlighted proportions between the voices, adapting the agogic and the dynamic level so as to attain the desired expression… All that took the audience’s breath away from the very first bars. Resting on certain chords, cohesion and the necessary breaks, the fastest staccato and the legato in sudden warming – this succession of transformations gave rise to the feeling that one had encountered something intimately familiar, comprehensible, satisfactory, positive. When it comes to Poulenc’s Four Motets for the Christmas Season,the choir heartily negotiated the more complex harmonies, with their performance being imbued with expressive simplicity, paying meticulous attention to proportions, soft dynamics, the text. Similarly to another few of his compositions of this ilk, Martinů’s Five Czech Madrigals has a wonderful texture, coupling the melodiousness and fullness of folk music with references to Renaissance polyphony. The next piece on the programme, Poulenc’s A Night of Snow, added poetic and modern musical sophistication, yet in this case too the ensemble did not deviate from producing a beautiful sound, lucidly performed. In the cantata Invitatio pastorum, Jan Novák, to whose music Martinů Voices have constantly devoted, offered a sincere mix of pastoral Christmas daintiness and rather complicated passages, rounded off with a Christmas song and jubilation. Supported by counterpoint and a consonant solo flute, the choir reached the maximum in clearly mastered polyphony, in melodic lines and in coordination. The cantata was performed by 12 singers, none of whom drowned out the others. The choir encompass delicious, straight and bright sopranos, pleasant altos, cultivated tenors and discreet basses. Whenever necessary, all the four voice groups are capable of flexibly coming forth, just as they are able to form a rounded and soft whole, supplement one another and play with the sound. The choir mastered the vocally tricky repertoire of the evening with ease and aplomb, giving an exemplary, unrivalled performance.

The audience received one encore: the Christmas carol Silent Night in the harmoniously wide, lush, immensely sonically and expressively arresting arrangement by Germany’s Bernd Englbrecht. In the evening’s conclusion, the choir presented a distillate of all that they had demonstrated previously: the ability of the most delicate dynamics, splendidly mastered harmonies, long breath, paying heed to every single word… Seldom is the performance aspect as distinctly a major facet of the entire concert programme as it was in this case. Lukáš Vasilek is the number one on the Czech choral music scene, and all the concerts given by his choir have been events of major significance.

Petr Veber
Harmonie (Czech Republic), December 2015
translation: Hilda Hearne