The concert the Prague Philharmonic Choir gave on 30 March, featuring music of starkly different styles, engaged numerous performers, not only a cappella, but also when it comes to vocal-instrumental configurations. The choir’s programmes encompass choral music, cantatas and oratorios, challenging and superb Czech and international repertoire works. The ensemble has also presented some pieces in Czech premiere, a case in point being the first item on the evening’s programme, the “sacred concerto” O Mother of God Vigilantly Praying for mixed chorus a cappella, written by Sergey Rachmaninoff at the age of 20 to the Orthodox liturgical text The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

A radically different atmosphere was evoked by the choir’s performance of the second piece, also set to a liturgical, this time Latin, text, the Roman Catholic Ordinary – Igor Stravinsky’s Mass, dating from the 1940s, for soli, mixed chorus and double wind quintet. It is a work of a mature composer, dealing with general philosophical and spiritual questions.

Yet another different atmosphere was created following the intermission, when the church resounded to the strains of the compact current of Johannes Brahms’s lovely and lightened Love-Song Waltzes, Op. 52, for soli, mixed chorus and piano four hand, composed in the late 1860s to German translations of Russian, Polish and Hungarian folk poetry, at the time deemed somewhat exotic in Western Europe.

The common denominator of the concert featuring such stylistically disparate music was the choir’s bold and convincing performance. The audience relished to the full the beauty of the a cappella art of singing in Rachmaninoff’s O Mother of God. Seldom do we hear so compact a choral vocal spectrum in such dynamically contrastive and extreme registers as was the case of the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s performance. The prevailing slow tempo blended with supple phrases, with discreet entrances of the individual voice groups emerging virtually “out of nothing”, subsequently bringing forth vehement gradations, dynamic contrasts and enthralling diminuendos. The horizontal ranges organically inosculated.

One can raise the – justified – question of how serious was Stravinsky’s intention to have his Mass performed during Roman Catholic liturgy, as its concert rendition alone demonstrated the work’s complexity and generally formidable communicability, to say nothing of the challenges placed on the performers. This, however, nowise diminishes – notwithstanding the expressive harshness – its captivating charm, singular beauty and profound spirituality, its being a compositional masterpiece.  All these attributes were grasped and foregrounded owing to the even and perfectly flexible attention of Lukáš Vasilek, who, by the way, has now headed the Prague Philharmonic Choir as its principal conductor for a full decade. He mastered the intricate tissue of Stravinsky’s score with an almost incredible lightness and elegance, by supple and accurate gestures with an efficient scale of flourish and minutious economy, both in the vertical and horizontal directions. Stravinsky’s scarcely performed work thus received a truly exemplary interpretation.

The intermission was definitely needed for the audience to “take a breath” so as to absorb Stravinsky’s timeless weighty statement, especially given that the concert continued with Brahms’s Love-Song Waltzes. The through-composed cycle was presented in an uninterrupted succession of all the 18 songs. Besides the Prague Philharmonic Choir, it was performed by Jana Dvořáková (mezzo-soprano), Martin Slavík (tenor), Lenka Navrátilová and Marcel Javorček (piano). Irrespective of the soloists and the two pianists’ qualities, when it comes to the performance of Lukáš Vasilek and the choir, it can be lauded in the same vein as said above. The present review would, however, be incomplete without pointing out their remarkable ability to capture, both as a whole and in detail, the diametrically different structure with a stylistically pertinent expression, elegance, agogic accentuation and thoughtful declamation. In conclusion, I would like to stress the choir’s spontaneous zest, their palpable joy at singing.

Julius Hůlek
Hudební rozhledy (Czech Republic), May 2017
translation: Hilda Hearne