The end of Mozart’s life and career may seem an unlikely place to start a new season. But in keeping with Collegium 1704’s knack for finding new dimensions in familiar works, pairing two late minor key pieces added depth and darker hues to what is typically treated as a bright, sparkling oeuvre.

Václav Luks conducts Collegium 1704
© Zdeňka Hanáková

The opening movement of Symphony no. 40 in G minor set the tone – somber, muted, all business. There was no lack of the ensemble’s trademark verve and character, though this time with a bit of an edge, a sense of anticipation and restlessness in the sound. If the intensity came at the cost of spontaneity, the atmosphere was nonetheless perfectly suited to the interpretation. The second movement broke the tension with elegant, graceful playing that seemed to float off the stage, though not very far. Conductor Václav Luks hit the occasional discordant notes hard, keeping the music grounded and the dominant colors dark.

The third and fourth movements were studies in expanding the sound while keeping it compact. Golden horns and woodwinds burnished the opening of the third movement, which picked up the tempo without breaking the mood. The broader scope felt organic, rising from within rather than added on, more revelation than development. The finale continued in that vein, with clean execution and a touch of urgency keeping the familiar main melody from slipping into cliché. Luks never lost the somber tone while employing a brisk tempo and emphatic style that provided a rousing finish. 

Collegium Vocale 1704
© Zdeňka Hanáková

The sheer volume of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem in D minor dominated the second half, with four soloists and a chorus of 20 at times overpowering the orchestra. At first blush, it seemed incongruous; by nature, one would expect a requiem to be darker than a symphony, more suitable for solemn treatment. But there was not a single choral section that did not seem directed heavenward, with all the power and heartfelt appeal it would take to get there.

Originally an adjunct of the orchestra, Collegium Vocale 1704 has evolved into a specialty ensemble skilled in repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Poulenc. With Luks hand-crafting every bar, the chorus puts out a wall of sound that shimmers with fine gradations, creating a cascading effect. In the Requiem this was especially true in the Rex tremendae, which roared off the stage like a waterfall, and the Confutatis, where the timpani seemed almost redundant. As the prayers grew more fervent the sound took on a soaring quality, reaching a crescendo in the Agnus Dei that segued into a dramatic conclusion. 

Simona Šaturová
© Zdeňka Hanáková

The four soloists – soprano Simona Šaturová, contralto Henriette Gödde, tenor Eric Stoklossa and bass-baritone Tobias Berndt – were at their best singing together. The contrapuntal passages were outstanding, marvels of carefully balanced, interwoven lines. The solo performances were mixed, with Gödde and Berndt turning in workmanlike efforts but Stoklossa comparatively weak. Šaturová, who is based in Prague, performs regularly with Collegium 1704 and is an experienced Mozart opera singer. Her polished vocals glowed and were a seamless fit with the orchestra’s pacing and style.

Luks was his usual animated self, singing along with the performers as he conducted and coaxing fine details out of his players. His performances are so engrossing that it’s easy to miss some of the subtle touches he brings to the music – a momentary pause, an unexpected accent, a pulsing quality that, once you’re aware of it, can seem surprisingly modern. From its start 16 years ago, Collegium 1704 has defied the stereotype of Baroque as staid, polite music. As part of the larger movement which has brought early music into the 21st century, it’s an approach that works superbly.