The opening concert of this year’s Prague Spring festival posed a vexing problem: how to offer a fresh interpretation of Smetana’s Má vlast at a time when orchestras can’t travel? The organizers came up with an ingenious solution: enlist a local orchestra that specializes in an entirely different type of music, maintaining the tradition without losing the elements of rediscovery and surprise.

Václav Luks conducts Collegium 1704
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

For this there was no better choice than Collegium 1704, a Czech early music ensemble that first came to prominence at the festival in 2005. The decision was not without risk. When Sir Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players were tapped for the opening concert in 1996, the reception was decidedly mixed. This time organizers were counting on an audience more accustomed and open to historically informed performances, and the great affection for an ensemble that has become one of the country’s premier cultural exports. The gamble paid off handsomely.

This was due in no small part to slavish attention to detail. Smetana’s symphonic masterwork demands an orchestra nearly three times the normal size of Collegium 1704, which was expanded with both local players and visiting specialists like historical horn expert Anneke Scott and Baroque violinist Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, who served as concertmaster. The instrumentation reflected the composer’s preference for the modern wind instruments just coming into vogue in the 1880s. And Václav Luks, the orchestra’s founder and music director, did his usual deep dive into research to emerge with a fresh approach to Romantic interpretation.

Václav Luks
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

Surprisingly, the sound was not all that different. It was most noticeable in the horns, whose timbre was softer and rounder than their contemporary counterparts. Otherwise, the differences were largely stylistic. In contrast to the lush, exuberant treatment Romantic-era works typically receive now, this performance had a muted quality – still dramatic, evocative and colorful, but relatively compact and controlled, a steady melodic flow with some of the fire taken off the top. Which is not to say that it lacked dimension. The dynamics were expansive, especially in invoking the fervor of Tábor and grandeur of Blaník.

There was enchantment in the shimmering waters of the Vltava and delicate beauty of Bohemian Fields and Groves. Luks’ expertise in crafting light, airy woodwinds and elucidating fine details created such a vivid Vltava that if butterflies had flitted from the stage during the textural passages, it would have been no surprise. And the strings in the Fields and Groves were at times ethereal, like a summer reverie drifting into an azure sky.

Má vlast streamed live from Smetana Hall
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

Anchoring all this was the craftsmanship that Luks and his ensemble bring to everything they do. Every phrase is thought through, no nuance overlooked, precision and intensity balanced with a sense of liveliness and spontaneity. This gives the music an immersive quality that was just as beguiling with Smetana as it is with the group’s standard repertoire from two centuries earlier.

Along with all that, Collegium 1704 brought something unique to Má vlast – a spiritual dimension. No matter how talented, no visiting orchestra could play with the sense of reverence that characterized this performance. In the hands of a native conductor, it was more than a piece of music. It was a source of renewal, a living history that took listeners on a journey of pride and inspiration.

Granted, that intangible quality might not have been evident to foreign ears, especially streaming over the internet. But in Smetana Hall, in the heart of Prague, where the audience came to its feet while the final notes were still reverberating, there was no mistaking the import and effect. It was sublime.