Superlatives tend to pile up when the subject is Collegium 1704, Pragueʼs brilliant Baroque ensemble. With founder and conductor Václav Luks committed to deep scholarship and electrifying concerts – “each one must be better than the last,” he likes to say – the group has set a high bar for smart, sophisticated performances of period music that have won fans throughout Europe. Writing about them quickly exhausts the favorable critical vocabulary.

Andreas Scholl and Collagium 1704 © Pražské jaro| Zdeněk Chrapek
Andreas Scholl and Collagium 1704
© Pražské jaro| Zdeněk Chrapek

So it was no surprise that the Prague Spring organizers chose the ensemble to accompany German countertenor Andreas Scholl, making a welcome visit to the festival after illness forced him to cancel an appearance with Accademia Bizantina two years ago. Scholl brought a version of the program that he was unable to perform then, a collection of suites and songs by one of his favorite composers, Henry Purcell.

Far from being a dusty 17th-century antiquity, Purcell seems to Scholl a voice that remains fresh and compelling. “His music has an emotional quality that transcends time,” the singer said at a press conference. “His songs speak a language that you donʼt need to be a musicologist to understand. Many are catchy tunes, real hits in the sense that once you hear them, you will never forget them.”

The “catchy” part probably demands a more refined ear than Scholl allows, but his performance in the lush acoustics of the Rudolfinum certainly made a case for Purcellʼs timeless appeal. The structure of the music is unmistakably of its time, but the melodies, turns of phrase, tight fit between the text and music and their powerful emotions, especially in the theatrical pieces that comprised most of this program, have a decidedly modern burnish. Schollʼs semi-performance style adds to that effect, with gestures reinforcing the lyrics in the manner of a contemporary crooner.

Scholl has an exceptionally clear voice with more body than most of his counterparts. If there is such a thing as a dramatic countertenor, Scholl is it, especially with his perpetual beard and dark features. Both the look and the fuller, rounder voice were ideal for songs like “What Power Art Thou?”, which bordered on anguished, and “When I am Laid in Earth,” an impassioned lament from Dido in the opera Dido and Aeneas.

Musically, Luks had his ensemble fine-tuned for this performance. The opening work, a suite from The Fairy Queen, bore all the trademarks of the Collegium 1704 sound: radiant, joyous, buoyantly elegant, vividly colored and perfectly transparent. There was so much energy in the playing that at times the music actually vibrated. This is not easy to maintain. By the time the group got to a suite from King Arthur, or The British Worty late in the program, its energy was flagging and the sound flattened a bit. For most of the evening, however, the music offered an enthralling combination of enthusiasm and virtuosity. 

And when the ensemble and the soloist struck the same emotional pitch, the effect was magical. In Didoʼs lament, both the music and vocals were infused with a noble pathos so seamless and gripping that the audience fairly exploded with applause. It was a special moment of uncommon synchronicity, and everyone in the hall knew it.

Not every piece worked that well. Scholl sang “Music for a While,” an ode to the joys of music, more like a dirge than a celebration. And by late in the second half, the songs had taken on a uniformity in delivery and tone, losing some of their edge. But Luks and Scholl do not lack for invention, as they showed in two encores. The first, “Strike the Viol” from the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, brought two recorder players to the front of the stage for featured parts with Scholl. For the second, they reprised “What Power Art Thou?” with some vocal gymnastics. Scholl sang the first half of the song in a baritone, and all the lines in scat-like fashion, having some fun with the vocals and showing how adaptable they can be.

Would a contemporaneous performance of this music in the late 1600s been as lively and witty? One had to wonder. Either way, Scholl made his point about the timelessness of the music in convincing and entertaining fashion, with the closing line of “Music for a While” still as true as ever: “Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.”

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