Now that the misery and isolation of the past year is receding, it’s easier to appreciate the silver linings in the dark cloud of the pandemic. While virtual performances were no substitute for the real thing, an astounding amount of high-quality music was available online. And artists, orchestras and organizers were forced to become more creative in their packaging and presentation.

Václav Luks
© Collegium 1704

Case in point: Collegium 1704, Prague’s premier early music ensemble. Rather than simply streaming concerts online, the group established a new platform, Universo 1704. It debuted in early March with nine concerts that were recorded in late 2020 and early 2021 in locations throughout the Czech Republic and Germany. Archived on Vimeo, the performances come with a cast list, program notes, lyrics – everything one needs to enjoy the music, short of sitting in the concert hall.

The series opened and closed at the Annenkirche in Dresden, where Collegium 1704 have been performing regularly since 2008. The choice of composers and pieces mirrored the cultural duality: Bach’s Magnificat for the March opener, Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa Omnium Sanctorum for the just-released finale. Nobody does Zelenka with the care and finesse that Collegium 1704 devotes to the Czech Baroque master, whose work forms the core of its repertoire. And this piece was a treat, the composer’s seldom-performed sixth mass offered in rich, colorful detail.

Collegium 1704
© Collegium 1704

Playing in an empty church gave artistic director Václav Luks an opportunity to rearrange his performers, with the musicians socially distanced on the altar, the singers arrayed throughout the pews and Luks conducting from the center aisle. Rather than diluting the ensemble’s normally tight, carefully calibrated sound, the spacing enhanced it, particularly the chorus, which opened with a full, cascading Kyrie. The female voices in particular soared to what seemed like heavenly heights.

This set the pace and tone for a lively interpretation that sounded more secular than sacred, animated and joyful, reveling in the melodic invention. The energetic string and woodwind introduction to the Gloria could have come from an overture or cantata and soprano Helena Hozová’s sensitive, lighter-than-air rendering of the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” aria would have fit neatly into a romantic opera. Fine accompaniment in the strings gave her vocals a golden glow.

Helena Hozová
© Collegium 1704

The lengthy Credo gave the ensemble an opportunity to showcase what it does best, which is to play an exciting brand of Baroque. Luks encourages his musicians and singers to perform with enthusiasm and individual flair, which gives the music a slight edge, a pulse that anchors and drives it. Heard live, this can be entrancing. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that it can be equally compelling online, reinforced by visuals that put the viewer literally in the performers’ laps (or pews), sharing their ardor and intensity.

The ritornello sections of the Credo flowed with fervor and grace, but the vocals shone the brightest. A solo by alto Aneta Petrasová offered exquisite moments of refined Baroque singing, and an a capella passage for the chorus fairly burst with glory. The Sanctus featured extended vocal lines for the sopranos and altos over swirling strings, an unexpectedly modern touch that Luks elucidated beautifully. After bass Tomáš Šelc delivered an authoritative solo in the Agnus Dei, the Dona nobis pacem gathered momentum for an uplifting choral conclusion.

The best streamed performances of the past year set a high visual bar and in that category, this one fell short. The lighting was harsh, the camera work not very creative and, despite the intimacy it offered with the performers, the overall presentation was not terribly insightful. Period expertise notwithstanding, there are only so many ways to bow a string or sing a note. It would have been enlightening to see more of Luks, who is an outstanding craftsman with a distinctive style for shaping the sound.

Still, there’s no arguing with well-done Zelenka, offered in no less than five of Universo 1704’s inaugural series of concerts, with more to come. In particular, for Baroque fans abroad who don’t have the luxury of seeing the music performed by specialists at its source, it’s a gift.

This concert was reviewed from the Universo 1704 video stream