The Prague Philharmonic Choir
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
November 2, 2014
Program changes can be tricky. The world-renowned Prague Philharmonic Choir singing Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, plus music by Dvořák and Janáček? Yes, please. Sadly, this was not the case when the choir came to Ithaca for Sunday night’s concert with something else in mind. Thankfully the new set list, as it were, offered plenty of delights to make up for unfulfilled expectations. The music of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák carried over by way of three works not often heard stateside. His Moravian Duets (1876), of which the sopranos and altos sang five selections to piano accompaniment, imbued Bailey Hall with a transportive, fairytale quality. Between the somber, overlapping lines of “The Maid Imprisoned” and the mélange of tones and tempi that was “The Ring,” these settings of folk poetry covered a wide and dramatic range. The Three Male Choruses on Folk Texts of 1877/78 followed, bringing contrast not only by the switch of roster, but also within the tripartite piece itself, marrying bright pianism with stark singing. With titles like “Sorrow” and “The Maiden in the Wood,” these songs engaged weighty and fleeting emotions alike, and did so with enough strength to withstand an underlying longing of epic proportion. Lastly before intermission was In Nature’s Realm. Written in 1882, it boasts some of Dvořák’s liveliest choral writing. For its five-song traversal the full choir assembled at last, underscoring the hymnal quality of “Music Descended on My Soul” and luxuriating in the echo effect of “The Rye Field”—the latter a memorable highlight, among others.
In addition to enjoying the opportunity to experience this music live, one could very much feel the cultures and places it represented. Each piece was an illustrative vignette, to be sure. Just as impressive, however, was Dvořák’s piano writing. More than mere support for the massive vocal forces, it held its own as an equal partner. Yet perhaps most enjoyable of all was principal conductor Lukáš Vasilek, whose superb direction—all of it without a master score, no less—continued on through the concert’s second half: the Liebeslieder Waltzes of Johannes Brahms. Composed 1868/69 and performed by the full choir and four-hand piano, it embodied, compared to the Dvořák, an integrated sound that was darker, more amalgamated. What the waltzes might have lacked in melodic oomph they made up for in rich choral textures, a quirky sense of humor (as in the invigoratingly stubborn “No, There’s Just No Getting Along”), and turns from alto and tenor soloists breaking the dense surroundings into smaller chunks.
The choir encored with an ethereal arrangement by Swedish composer Jan Sandström of the popular Elizabethan carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” which split the singers into two groups and showcased their ability to be as airy as they had been compact. With downright orchestral expanse and a sublime bass section to its credit, the choir showed us the true meaning of a cappella, and a lot more besides. A real treat.