Collegium 1704 perform Zelenka’s Missa Divi Xaverii ZWV 12, conducted by Václav Luks

Hola a todos. This superb performance below from Amsterdam was part of the opening concert of the Utrecht Early Music Festival in August 2014. It’s a performance of Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa Divi Xaverii ZWV 12 (composed in 1729). After hearing this and some of his other works, I can tell you that this guy Zelenka really liked choral fugues, and so do I.

Conductors take one of two approaches with choral fugues. It depends upon the conductor. Some conductors like for the listener to hear each entrance of the subject of the fugue when it appears throughout and will have the other sections of the Chorus tone it down slightly when the subject (re)appears so that the entrance of the fugal subject can be clearly heard each time. Another way of doing it is to make sure that when your section of the Chorus enters with the fugal subject (again), sing as if you are a section of stately trumpets, to be heard above the other sections of the Chorus. Václav Luks, the conductor in this performance, does not take that approach. He pretty much keeps all sections of the Chorus even in volume throughout the fugues. The mic’ing for the Chorus in this performance could have been better. I don’t know what they were thinking but I see some mics up and some mics down rather than all at the same level. I think the tenor and bass sections could have been better mic’d to better hear their fugal entrances just as one clearly hears the soprano section entrances. I don’t think it was the Chorus but rather the mic’ing.

If you don’t know what a fugue is, think the simplistic example of “Row, row, row your boat” that you probably sung in elementary school (I’m referring to the US; I would think they would have something a bit more tasteful than that in the EU). You may have heard “Row, row,…” sung where four people were singing the subject (“row, row, row your boat”) at four different times with one person starting after the other has sung the subject. I’m trying not to get too complicated here. But that’s a very simplistic example of a fugue when “Row, row, row your boat” is sung like that.

Collegium 1704:  Choral Excellence

The Orchestra and Chorus here are the Collegium 1704 & Collegium Vocale 1704. In this instance, the Orchestra has its own Chorus, and Václav Luks is the ensemble’s permanent conductor. Václav is an outstandingly superb musician-conductor (well they all are for that matter!), and I assume he prepared both the Chorus and Orchestra.  This is an example of choral excellence at its finest:  The Chorus sings with perfect intonation, one of the foundations of choral excellence.  From watching Václav conduct and his rapport with his choristers and orchestral musicians, and as a former Orchestra Chorus member myself, I think he would be a pleasure to work with. Like myself, he seems to favour the soprano section particularly in this performance, such as in the Gloria.  He and his stellar musicians are from Prague, Czech Republic, and in their performances I’ve seen — and like some other conductors I’ve seen in the Nederlands — Václav doesn’t usually use a baton when conducting. I don’t care one way or the other; he should do what he wants. He obviously gets superb results without a baton. More and more conductors, from what I’ve seen, seem to favour no baton in the Nederlands and especially for symphonic choral performances (such as in this performance of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis).

Zelenka was a Czech composer and musician of the Baroque period, a contemporary of JS Bach. Bach lived between the years of 1685 – 1750. Zelenka lived between the years of 1679 – 1745. I think his music deserves more attention. One could give god Bach a rest, no? I think he’s certainly gotten plenty of attention at this point in time. Let’s give some attention to Zelenka. (Not likely to happen in the US or in its poodle colony the UK). Zelenka’s chorale sections are in the style of Palestrina. If you listen closely, you may hear that some of his harmonies were ahead of their time. But overall, his music is closest to that of Johann Sebastian Bach’s. Zelenka is sometimes referred to as the Catholic Bach, whereas Bach was Lutheran.

Again, the Orchestra, Chorus and conductor, Václav Luks, in this performance are all musicians from the Czech Republic. I mention that because someone in the U-toob comments wrote this nationalistic-sounding comment about this performance. Apparently they had done no research and erroneously thought that all of the performers were Dutch as well as Zelenka. As someone astutely pointed out, the only thing that’s Dutch about it is that it’s a performance from Amsterdam and was recorded by Avrotros Klassiek, the Dutch public broadcasting network in the Nederlands.

These musicians seem to really get into their music and their performance which is good to see. Notice how the 4th chair violinist starts to smile and sway in rhythm and mouthed the words to (“Dominus Deus, Rex coelestis”) with the soprano and alto soloists in their duet from 18.00 forward in the video. She obviously knows the piece well and enjoys it.

I have a couple of parts of this that I especially like, such as the Gloria. Also, the choral fugue on the text, “Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen./With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.” is wonderful. That begins at 29.10 in the video (start it slightly before that). The subject of the fugue is first heard by the tenor section followed by the basses and so on.

I don’t understand why this guy Zelenka works are not performed more often, other than Händel and or J.S. Bach are often given prime space on concert stages when Baroque period music is performed. Give god Händel a break — I think he’s had amply attention by now, don’t you? — and perform Zelenka. His works that I’ve heard are just as good, if not rival, Händel’s. No, I’m not putting Händel down. I’m just saying that some of his works are over-performed. Especially Messiah which is dragged out every holiday season on cue because the sheeple expect their “annual tradition” of Messiah. In my opinion Händel’s Israel in Egypt is far more interesting than Messiah with Israel known as the “oratorio of choruses.” Collegium 1704 and Collegium 1704 Vocale have performed Messiah too and I really enjoyed their interpretation. Václav Luks chose tempi that reminded me of those used by Margaret Hillis (Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus) when she conducted the Oratorio Society of Washington and the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall one holiday season years ago. The Washington Post the next day gave that performance an excellent review and titled it “A Brisk Messiah.” My friends from the Conservatory where we were all training and I talked about that performance for years afterwards. That’s how much of an impression it made on us. We’d never heard Messiah done like that before. The closest performance to the Hillis at the time was the newly-released Messiah by the Academy and Chorus of St Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner conducting. But it still wasn’t the Hillis performance.

Now, for the vocal soloists which I usually ignore in most performances because they usually scream rather than try to sing beautifully and blend their voices together as true artists.  For example (of screaming), I’ve never heard a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth where the vocal soloists were not screaming with one trying to over-power and out-scream all the others.  Especially the soprano soloist.  She’s usually the worst of the bunch.  Usually the soprano soloist can overpower the full Orchestra and Chorus.  Her annoying voice cuts through it all.  With Beethoven’s Ninth, few, if any, of the soloists seem to have heard of or have been trained to blend their voices together, and conductors don’t seem to say a word of constructive criticism to the vocal soloists asking them to better blend their voices together because for some odd reason the vocal screamers seem to be approached as if they are sacrosanct and above reproach.  Is that just because they came from an artist management and are being well-paid.  They’re not being paid to scream and not blend their voices together or to try to overpower each other.  But in this performance from Amsterdam, the vocal soloists are all excellent and these soloists, these true artists are from the Chorus. I’ve often suggested that the soloists come from the Chorus and not be brought in from the opera genre for a symphonic choral work.  That’s a mixing of genres and it doesn’t work well.  It also can confuse those in the audience as to what they’re really hearing.  Are they hearing a symphonic choral work or opera?  Some in the audience will say “It’s opera,” just because of the operatic screaming soloists.  Why can’t the vocal soloists — which are usually screamers — in Beethoven’s Ninth sound like these superb soloists from Amsterdam?  I know it’s a different period of music (Baroque), but what does that have to do with anything?  We’re striving for artistry here, not screaming.  Any fool can scream regardless of what period of music the piece is from.  Is screaming required for Beethoven?  Not if I were the conductor.  These soloists are not screamers. These soloists are true artists, they all have beautiful voices and they have real talent and they don’t need to resort to using annoying wobbling and fluttering vibrato to cover up bad vocal technique or pitch problems.  Unlike the screaming divas — from the opera genre — one constantly hears in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, (the quartet of usually-screaming soloists in that work most often resembles a train wreck), these soloists strive to blend their voices together and they do so beautifully. They are a pleasure to listen to. All of them. The soloists mostly sing with a lovely and beautiful straight-tone, but even those soloists who use some slight vibrato for their solo passages, when they return to the Chorus they turn off their vibrato as well-trained choristers do as the superb Chorus sings with a lovely straight tone giving them perfect intonation in all vocal sections (SATB). Here are the names of the soloists from the Chorus:

Hana Blažíková, sopraan (She has quite a vocal range)
Kamila Mazalová, alt
Václav Čížek, tenor
Tomáš Král, bas (Zelenka)

I also liked the various coloured ties that the guys of the Chorus wore which added nice colour. Each guy has on a different coloured tie.  Especially liked the pink worn by baritone Tomáš Král.  I’ve seen the multi-coloured ties with other choral ensembles around the Nederlands. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Related:

Collegium 1704 and Collegium 1704 Vocale

One comment on “Collegium 1704 perform Zelenka’s Missa Divi Xaverii ZWV 12, conducted by Václav Luks

  1. D8

    I like this! Also like the soloists. They sing so naturally without all the huffing and puffing of operatic soloists. I now see what you mean about the soloists should come from the chorus. It all matches….which is what you’ve talked about. I’d take this over messiah any day…..I’ve heard that too much and I guess we’re all about to hear it even more since this is the beginning of December. Although not on your site I’m sure. 🙂

    Thanks for this.

Fin. The End.