THREE INCARNATIONS OF THE PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC CHOIR
If at another concert of the Prague Philharmonic Choir cycle Lukáš Vasilek had aimed to demonstrate the ensemble’s versatility, he definitely succeeded in this respect on the penultimate day of March at the Church of Saints Simon and Jude in Prague – and with pieces that have rarely been performed. The spectrum of that evening’s repertoire, ranging from Sergey Rachmaninoff’s majestic sacred music, to Igor Stravinsky’s elliptical expression and Johannes Brahms’s modest love songs, so widely popular in his time, was impressive indeed.
O Mother of God Vigilantly Praying is an early Rachmaninoff vocal work, a sacred concerto, the composer’s contribution to the Orthodox liturgy, with the lyrics referring to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In terms of music, it is a hymnic, monumental score, containing just a few polyphonic passages, yet harbouring large dynamic differences, which the choir highlighted with an extraordinary roundness, presenting an admirable range of expression in a cultivated and stylish manner and, notwithstanding the looseness of the full sound, reasonably discreetly, having everything under control.
Igor Stravinsky’s Mass is of a different ilk, a stern, ascetic and weighty work, coming across as modern and antique alike. The choir and its conductor managed to convey all these facets with great precision. Yet the double wind quintet adds another – secular – aspect. Stravinsky allegedly wanted to write a piece that could be used in liturgy (that was the reason why at the time, in the late 1940s, despite his own Orthodox faith, he chose to set a Roman Catholic mass, whose tradition is more congenial for modern music). Nonetheless, his Mass is primarily a purely concert work – splendid, intriguing, even provocative in its singular style.
Performed after the intermission, Brahms’s Love-Song Waltzes are from another universe. Although not Strauss-like, they are lightweight, chirpy, poetic. Based on folk texts, the love songs adhere to the 19th-century social and salon vocal tradition. Much like in Stravinsky’s Mass, the soloists were afforded the opportunity to showcase their skills. The entire ensemble sang with ease, rendering the style that is also friendly to non-professional choirs. Lenka Navrátilová and Marcel Javorček played piano four hands with an equally great expressive sensitivity, although the Church of Saints Simon and Jude does not provide ideal acoustic conditions for the instrument.
The Prague Philharmonic Choir is currently in excellent form, sounding well-balanced and robust. Lukáš Vasilek has led the ensemble for more than a decade. They are currently experiencing a very significant and flourishing era, and to all appearances the choir will continue to enjoy success in the future too. The church was packed, with a number of musicians among the audience. Vasilek’s choir evidently arouses interest and curiosity as something truly relevant, inspiring and exciting, being deemed a well-established quality guarantee. We can still remember a period of time when, for whatever reasons, the purely vocal genre did not attract such great deal of attention among Prague music lovers, when choirs failed to gather large audiences. The Prague Philharmonic Choir’s concert was a truly major event.
Harmonie (Czech Republic), March 2017
translation: Hilda Hearne