Earthquakes and wars are hardly holiday fare. But cantatas written to commemorate them made for a rich, thrilling Christmas concert from Prague’s Collegium 1704, delivered with characteristic verve and enthusiasm at the Rudolfinum, where a devoted hometown audience packed the house and hung on every note.

Katharina Andres © Petra Hajsk
Katharina Andres
© Petra Hajsk
Along with running a smart, spirited early music ensemble, Artistic Director Václav Luks is very good at unearthing forgotten manuscripts and programming neglected works. On this occasion he chose two 18th-century contemporaries, Handel and Telemann, and three topical compositions: Handel’s Te Deum HWV 278, written to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in July 1713, and Donna, che in ciel di tanta luce splendi HWV 233, written to thank the Virgin Mary for sparing survivors of a 1703 earthquake in central Italy; and Telemann’s Die Donnerode TWV 6:3, a thunderous echo of the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

The opening Te Deum set the tone and template for the evening – vibrant playing by the musicians with especially elegant work from the violins, colorful vocals from the soloists, and an electric charge from a 19-voice chorus. The edge in the choral sound stems from Luks’ distinctive approach. Instead of trying to achieve a homogeneous effect, he strives for every voice to maintain its own personality. The result is no less precise, but carries a frisson that lends every piece an air of excitement. 

And the Te Deum is a great vocal showcase, with touches atypical of the era. One passage starts with a solo voice in the choir that builds to two, three, four and finally the full chorus, a prescient effect. Various combinations of vocalists stepped to the front of the stage for other sections, with the penultimate “Vouchsafe, O Lord” featuring a quintet that included three male singers doing polyphony – a fine performance by Alessio Tosi, Václav Číček, and Lisandro Abadie. 

Fast-paced tempi throughout and a soaring quality in the music, with cascading choral passages adding a celestial glow, made for the most exhilarating Handel heard in Prague in a long time.

Ann Hallenberg © Petra Hajski
Ann Hallenberg
© Petra Hajski

Donna brought Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg to the stage in her debut appearance with Collegium 1704. Hallenberg has a remarkable voice, with the depth of a dramatic soprano but the suppleness of a coloratura, and brilliant technique – her diction is exquisite and her delivery perfectly smooth and transparent, like a clear, running stream. Alternating between recitative and arias, she gave a riveting rendition of spiritual salvation in the face of catastrophe, passionate and darkly expressive. It was a stunning performance and everybody in the hall knew it, bringing her back for two curtain calls while the musicians stamped their feet in approval. 

With woodwinds and horns dominating, Telemann’s Die Donnerode sounded less exciting but offered more variety in the pairings of singers and musicians, bringing individual talents to the fore. The piece was written for a religious service conducted as an act of penance after God’s apparent wrath in Lisbon. But at least in this performance, the spirit was one of joy and artful celebration. 

Soprano Céline Scheen got many of the best lines, and was particularly engaging in a duet with bassoonist Katrin Lazar. Hallenberg’s duet with oboist Katharina Andres sounded like two voices, perfectly matched in tone. And there was a hint of humor in a charming bass duet, with singers Lisandro Abadie and Marián Krejčík nimbly trading phrases. Luks’ fingertip control of pregnant pauses in the choral lines added dramatic touches to a drum-driven surge that built to a glorious finish.

The Christmas concert put a satisfying cap on what has been another benchmark year for Collegium 1704, which included a residency at Bachfest Leipzig and the ensemble’s debut at the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Increasingly, listeners throughout Europe are discovering what devotees of early music in Prague have known for a long time: This group plays the music with a unique flair and captivating style that no one else can match.

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