Prague Chamber Choir: Dvořák/Janáček/Eben (ECM New Series 1539)

Prague Chamber Choir

Prague Chamber Choir
Dagmar Masková soprano
Marta Benacková alto
Walter Coppola tenor
Peter Mikulás bass
Lydie Härtlová harp
Josef Ksica organ
Josef Pancík conductor
Recorded November 1993 at Rudofinum/Dvořák Hall, Prague
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Formed in 1990, and emergent in the newly independent Czech Republic, the Prague Chamber Choir offers in its only ECM appearance this harmonious program of Bohemian church music. In the accompanying liner notes, Antonín Pešek draws our attention to the thriving Catholic pulse beneath what was then a topical spread of patriotic provincialism, and in so doing allows us to contextualize the music as part of an auditory archive. The three works on this program are like a spectrum of light, gradating from ultraviolet to infrared in the space of an hour.

Antonín Dvořák may not have been primarily known as a choral crafter, but his “honorary” Mass in D major, op. 86 (1887), through which the composer pays homage to the ruins of the past without succumbing to the “progressive” tendencies of their rebuilding, has an allure all its own. The Kyrie is a lovely opening, each vocal line clearly articulated in a loose macramé of faith. Glittering moments from the tenors crash like the crest of a wave over a sandy organ. Four soloists arise from this dense tide, of which the soprano is arrestingly emotive. The Gloria provides an exuberant change of pace, again set aloft by a gorgeous tenor section. The 10-minute Credo, on its own a masterful composition, is perhaps a touch saccharine and longwinded, even if it makes the Sanctus all the more jewel-like for its brevity. The latter’s exuberant opening, transcendent organ solo, and mounting volume coalesce like an unforgettable memory. The famous, often singled-out Agnus Dei remains the high point of the piece, a lullaby in spiritual clothing.

Leoš Janáček’s humble offering is Our Father (1901), a sensitively set Creed with an unmistakable harp ostinato and lush organ writing. The insightful tenor solos stick to the mind like glue, bonding love and awe through a single human voice. Says Pešek of this piece: “The calls for bread reflect the feelings of the defiant plebian, who does not demand the ‘consecrated bread of tradition,’ but the daily bread of true humanity.” And indeed, we find in it as much secular as spiritual solidarity. Janáček’s protean understanding of the human voice was entirely his own, and comes through in the physical shape in which every note seems to be described. Arousing in its flavors and unique in its textures, the shattering Amen at the end rings in the head and in the heart long after its resonance fades.

The Prague Te Deum (1989) of Petr Eben is a fitting cap to this fountain of vocal wisdom. Eben’s ode to renewal after oppression has a somewhat antiphonal structure and pays strict attention to the rhythms of its text. Like the sociopolitical about-face that undergirds its creation, the music vacillates between dissonance and harmony, if not embodies both simultaneously, as it basks in the glow of an uncertain future. The upward-looking ending revels in its own sound in the face of a God whose silence is music.

This is a proclamatory album representative of a significant trajectory in European history, but one often obscured by ECM New Series heavyweights. The music is cumulative, the performances committed, and the sound crystalline. A worthy addition to any choral enthusiast’s collection.

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