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Critic’s Notebook: Collegium 1704 Resuscitates Heinichen; a Crowning Achievement

Also reviewed for DiePresse: Resonanzen-Finale im Konzerthaus: Neptun macht die Ex-Geliebte zum Mann

The finale of Resonanzen, the annual early music festival of Vienna‘s Konzerthaus, landed on Neptune. And it wasn’t a safe landing: Collegium 1704 positively careened towards the blue planet and dove into the hydrogen and helium atmosphere, like Spaceman Spiff on a more reckless day. Mahvelous!

No one contributed more to art to music (and to the gene pool) of middle Germany than August II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Not a feast or celebration that wasn’t garlanded with a lavish helping of the best music that debt could buy. One of these made-to-measure works, commissioned, written, and performed for and on the occasion of his son, Prince Frederick Augustus’s name day, and never again since, was unearthed, for the first time in 300 years, at the conclusion of the Resonanzen. Johann David Heinichen was the composer (whom the prince himself had ‘discovered’ in Venice and immediately hired for his father’s band in Dresden) and the large orchestral serenade he wrote for the occasion was Le nozze die Nettuno, e di Teti. Being such a fire-and-forget work, it’s not a bit less inspired for it.

The plot is simple enough. Neptune and Thetis, the fairest of the Nereids, wish to get married. A former dalliance of Neptune’s, however, Caenis, is on the scene, and she is slightly undiplomatic in her lavish reminiscence of those past romps. Although she has contented herself with Neptune moving on and wishes him and Thetis all the very, very best, this brings Suspicion (personified) unto the scene, who sees an opening to sow discontent. Finally, Caenis offers to change her sex, so that she may continue to love Neptune in her innocent ways, without causing Thetis’ fury. Not the least because understanding and love come from the same place, the wish is granted, and Caenis becomes Caeneus, a formidable early Greek hero. Suspicion is banished – not, however, without deviously suggesting, whether trust can be worth much when there is no suspicion; what the value of faithfulness is, when faithlessness isn’t even an option. (Pre-shadowing the subject of Richard Strauss’ Egyptian Helen by 200 years.)

Collegium 1704 (has it really been ten years since we last reviewed them in concert?!) under Václav Luks took their musical archaeology seriously. Despite the relatively small ensemble – four singers and an orchestra of 16 strings, two horns, two oboes, two flutes, XXX, two harpsichords, and the inevitable theorbo (the score suggests Heinichen had possibly asked for even less; after all, this was after August II had almost bankrupted his Electorate on the occasion of August Jr’s wedding bash) – the ensemble came out with a punch and didn’t let up until the last note, two hours later. Without claiming, that Le nozze die Nettuno, e di Teti “great” in the Mass-in-B-minor-sense, it is choc-full of goodness, of surprises, of tender moments and spurts, of grand arias and fabulous ensemble work and instrumental contributions. Particularly delightful is a pizzicato accompaniment to an aria about a bee collecting its nectar. The instrumentalists were essentially perfect, until the very end, when a little horn-wobble here, a briefly flat violin passage there, suggested, that Ensemble 1704 was mostly made up of humans, after all. This was that spark that had been missing, a bit, amid French elegance and English politeness.

The voices, too, were a delight. Confident and full and appropriately operatic (but not too much), Roberta Mameli, Lucile Richardot, Manuel Walser, and tenor Krystian Adam (who lent a nice baritonal swagger to his bravura aria that concluded the first half) were quite the contrast to the rather more pallid voices (excellent though they had been in their own right) of the previous Resonanzen concerts. Easily as impressive: The foursome worked just as well in its ‘choral’ ensemble passages. A joy from A to Z, varied and diverting.

Photo © Manuel Chemineau

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