MUSIC / What they got up to at home: Jan Smaczny hears Musica Antiqua Praha kick off the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St James's Church, Piccadilly

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Lift the lid on any European court of note in the 18th century and the chances are that you will find a Czech or two among the musical personnel. The success of Czech composers and performers outside their native land did much to shape early Classical music. A less familiar story is that of the repertoire brought to the Czech-speaking lands by non-native composers.

In the first concert of the Lufthansa Baroque Music Festival, Musica Antiqua Praha, directed by Pavel Klikar, set out to show us what the Czechs were up to at home rather than abroad in the late 17th century, with a programme based in part on the Italian repertoire to be found in the Moravian archive of Kromeriz. In a festival that offers so many familiar blockbusters - all the Bach suites and Monteverdi's Orfeo later this month - this first concert was none the worse for its slightly didactic look. The title was 'Hidden treasures of the early Italian baroque', and it was good to be reminded that the concerted style of Monteverdi's Italian contemporaries and successors was as pervasive in Central Europe in the second half of the 17th century as that of Corelli and Vivaldi in the 18th.

Those who were present at Musica Antiqua Praha's concert at the festival two years ago will remember their lean, focused string tone and well-shaped, energetic bass lines. In two years, the group has developed considerably. With larger forces than before, their command of this particular repertoire was heard to fine effect in ensemble sonatas by Bertali, Grandi and Cazzati. The focus and clarity is such that in Cazzati's sonata 'La vecchia' we might almost have been listening to a consort of viols. The bass line has perhaps lost some of its energy, and could have done with more frequent use of the violone, but the ensemble's restraint could not be confused with a lack of spontaneity. Climaxes and conclusions were not flagged up in an obvious way and occasionally an ending caught the listener by surprise. The compensation was a lack of the kind of tiresome over-emphasis that patronises an audience and draws undue attention to the performers.

The group's vocalists have also developed. In chorus, the vocal ensemble did not match the subtle homogeneity of the instrumentalists. Their qualities emerged more strongly in the solo lines: the superbly sustained bass of Michal Pospisil and the captivating sensuality of the soprano lines of Anna Hlavenkova and Magdalena Kozena. So lovely was the sound that at times a rougher ride for the listener might have served the music better: a few harder consonants, or a more frankly operatic approach to some of the declamations.

In the end, perhaps, the concert's most remarkable aspect was that there was no Czech music. There has always been something of an expectation in this country that Eastern Europeans are happiest when performing their own. A touch of Michna or Vejvanovsky might have been fun, but, paradoxically, their absence strengthened Musica Antiqua Praha's credentials as its country's premier early music group. They were, after all, only laying claim to a repertoire that is common to all Europe, the kind of thing German, Dutch and British early music groups have been doing for years. A bold step, then, and one that paid off. Perhaps next year they should assay a programme of English 17th-century instrumental and vocal music.

Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music runs to 2 July (Box office 071-434 4003).

Comments