Balancing Acts

The Prague Philharmonic Choir presented an intriguing combination of voice and instruments in concert Feb 1.

In The Prague Philharmonic Choir’s Ingenious Matchup, it’s Voice Facing Off against Instrument

You generally hear large mixed choirs either a cappella or in conjunction with symphony orchestras, as in the final movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

In their performance Feb 1 at the Lichtenstein Palace, the Prague Philharmonic Choir offered a third alternative. The massed voices of the choir were balanced against groups of instruments that are generally heard in more intimate settings.

Three Match-ups …
In Brahms’ Four Songs, Opus 17, the female members of the choir were accompanied by two French horns and a harp. The darker coloration of the horns’ tones provided a nice contrast with the higher registers of the female singers, while their volume was fully equal to that of the choir. Equally striking as well was the use Brahms made of the harp. Its arpeggios punctuated the dialogue between the singers and the horns, adding a third dimension to the totality of the sound.

Schubert’s Song of the Spirits over the Waters (D 714) boasted an equally imaginative combination of choir and instrumentation. Here, the male members of the choir were accompanied by a string quintet consisting of pairs of violas and cellos and a double bass, the instruments mimicking the swirling waters of the river.

The balancing instrument for Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Young Musgrave and Lady Bernard was a grand piano. In Karel Košásek’s capable hands, it was completely up to the task of accompanying the Philharmonics’ full mixed choir. As in the previous piece, one could not, in fact, speak of the instruments as mere accompaniments. They were partners in musical dialogues that left the audiences delighted by what they heard.

And a Fourth: Janáček’s Czech Musical Idiom
The premier piece of the evening was undoubtedly Leoš Janáček’s The Wolf’s Trail (Vlčí Stopa, JW IV/39). Janáček devoted himself in the 1890s to an intense study of the folksongs of Moravia and Silesia. Born in Hukvaldy, he was an ardent champion of the national revival that helped the Czechs reclaim their national heritage. As in other countries, most notably Finland, this meant returning to the sources of their culture—sources that in their rural obscurity had escaped the dominant presence of the occupying power.

Originally written for female voices, 'The Wolf's Trail' is configured in a new way by the choir.

For Janáček, these sources, the songs and dances of his region, were fundamental for his project of creating a genuinely Czech musical idiom. In terms of his choral works, this involved “speech tunes,” which expressed musically the rhythms, pitch contours, and inflections of the Czech language. The point was not just to overcome the “Germanization” of Czech music, but also to create something genuinely new—an national music that expressed the uniqueness of the Czech view of life.

In The Wolf’s Trail, written for a female choir, he turned to the poetry of Jaroslav Vrchlický, himself a major figure in the Czech national revival. As a Professor of European Literature at Charles University, Vrchlický strove to show that Czechs’ expressive powers were equal to those of the major European literary languages.

Choirmaster Vacilek and part of the Philharmonic Choir

In Janáček’s hands, this goal was accomplished by setting its words to music. Again we have the dialogue between the piano and the chorus.

Here, however, we have a special touch added by Lukáš Vasilek, the Philharmonic’s choirmaster. Janáček does not specify the lead singer, who gives the substance of Vrchlický’s poem. Vasilek splits this into two voices: a soprano handling the narrative, and a tenor, the speaking parts. The two voices dialogue with the female chorus and the piano.

The whole, then, forms a multidimensional tonal experience, one that reflects the complexity and depth of the Czech national heritage that Janáček and Vrchlický did so much to revive. — oo

— James Mensch

Photo Credits: Top: Prague Philharmonic Choir; middle and bottom: Miroslav Setnička

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