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Adam Michna of Otradovice and the Societas Incognitorum.

Adam Michna of Otradovice is beyond doubt the best known of Czech baroque composers, but his Latin liturgical pieces are rarely heard in concert programmes and on recordings. A recently released CD from the Brno Ensemble Societas Incognitorum and the Schola Gregoriana Pragensis goes some way to filling the gap, and paying the debt to this most important protagonist of the Czech organ baroque and dedicated Marian from Jindrichuv Hradec. Michna's third Ordinary of the Mass, Marian Vespers, and Lorettan Litany are here augmented by gregorian chant. We talked about questions of performance and about the Societas Incognitorum itself with its artistic director Eduard Tomastik.

The Third Mass from the Sacra et Litaniaeje Collection is remarkable for its character--continuous variations over a repeating bass melody. The Societas Incognitorum ensemble have chosen an approach that is relatively unusual, but all the more interesting for that. Many will be surprised by the changes of tempo between the individual passages, and in the introduction to the recording this choice is justified in some detail as "the word of the performer". Can you say something more about this mode of performance?

Michna's mass is truly excellent music in terms of structure and inventiveness, and so I was all the more surprised to find it had never been recorded before. All I know is that some Czech ensembles have played it, but since I never heard any of their performances, I couldn't draw on any specific experience for my own approach. It is simply my own interpretation, and I stand by it. The choice of instrumental voices is also specific. The virginals, used in some places instead of a positive organ, rather change the character of the pieces, and so fulfils the aim of presenting the variety and colour possibilities of the Baroque basso. Instead of the normally used viola da gamba, however, a cello shares in the playing of the continuo, and in some passages we hear only the theorba and the positive is silent--all of this contributes to that effective mutability of colour. But these are still debatable steps, and deserve some commentary from the ensemble leader.

In some of his printed prefaces Heinrich Schutz says that ultimately it always depends on the capacities and possibilities of the cappelmeister. I don't offer the example as an alibi for my instrumentation, but to point out the huge variability that existed in early music and was integral to it. As far as using the cello rather than the viola da gamba in the basso continuo is concerned, this relates to a problem much more complex than it might seem at first sight. Particularly in the 17th century, there was massive diversity in terminology, size, tuning and so forth in stringed instruments. However much performers today tend to use the gamba for accompaniment,--and it is often the right choice--it cannot be regarded as the only correct possibility. I use the cello more often because it has a more solid, sharp and concrete sound. Also I have been working with Ondrej Michal for a long time, his play suits me, and we're so used to each other that we know exactly what to expect from each other during productions. As far as the instrumental mutability of the general bass is concerned--leaving aside the period sources--in today's practice I have essentially encountered two opposite views. Some people claim that the instruments participating in the accompaniment should play from the beginning to then end (if the composer does not state it explicitly) while others think it better to treat the continuo more colourfully, depending on a given mood or emotion. My view is that there is no single practice to be followed in this aspect either. On the one hand you cannot invent a complicated accompaniment scheme at any price, but on the other there are places that are all but invitations to transform the colour of the continuo and so very much enliven the piece but also testify to the interpretative inventiveness of the cappelmeister.

Why did you choose Italian pronunciation for your performance of Michna?

There is no doubt that at the beginning of the 17th century Italian culture became hugely fashionable in Europe. It affected almost all branches of art with different degrees of intensity in different places, and gripped most of the major centres surrounding Bohemia (Vienna, Salzburg, Munich and Desden) to such an extent that some Austrian or German statesmen corresponded with their subjects in Italian instead of their native language. We can only speculate on exactly how strong Italian fashion was in Bohemia itself at the time, but given that the influx of Italian musicians into Moravia goes back to the 1620s, it seems reasonable to assume that in Michna's day Italian culture was pretty well known (at least in music). Direct proofs on Italian pronunciation in the Bohemian Lands are absent, but equally there is no clear evidence of use of the hard pronunciation in Michna's Latin. I have several times heard the ridiculous argument that since Michna was a Czech composer, why not sing him in "our Latin". and I would like to put things in proportion here by pointing out that there is no Czech pronunciation of Latin, but only the German pronunication, which we adopted for historical reasons and which differs strongly from the original ancient Latin pronunciation. Frankly the whole dispute is more about personal taste, and no one will ever win it by making tedious theoretical historical arguments. For me Italian, just like Italian "soft" Latin is an ideal speech for singing bel canto in the true and original sense of the term.--but here we are getting to another issue that would deserve a separate article. If I have to choose between hard and soft pronunciation of Latin, I always choose Italian, because it is unquestionably more singable.

Given the relatively small circle of performers of early music in this country it is inevitable that the instrumentalists in particular are involved in many projects at the same time, and so contrasts in the interpretative approach, or perhaps more the sound quality of the individual ensembles are not necessarily so great. Nonetheless, every ensemble tries to give itself a special profile, to be different. What is the overall performance concept at Societas Incognitorum, if something of the kind can be defined at all?




It's true that the basic core of skilled performers of early music is very small in this country. The reasons for this state of affairs, which have to do with the training system, are not things I want to talk about here. On the other hand it is usual in the world for the same musicians to be hired for projects under different "trade names" without the result being uniformity of sound or interpretation. The essential factor here is the personality of the cappelmeister; who gives a piece of music clear contours, projects his or her personality into it and stands by it. To have your own distinctive view, "to stick your neck out"--in my view these are the only things that prevent uniformity creeping in, and give music meaning altogether. This is also the basic principle behind the performance concept at Societas Incognitorum.


Your choice of instrumentalists must definitely differ from choice of singers, since singers are the real core of Societas Incognitorum. How did you make the choice, and what training and education do the core members and the guests have?

Let me just clarify and stress that the Societas Incognitorum is actually a voice ensemble, which invites instrumentalists to play with us. But I should also add that whether we are talking about players or singers, a certain circle of musicians has crystallised who suit me professionally and personally and who are used to playing together. They alternate in various combinations in SI projects, depending on the time-pressures on some of the members, and the fact that not every repertoire suits every performer. This mode of work requires great performance experience in each member (and here I should add that our ensemble is made up of musicians who have many years of experience with early music not just in this country but abroad as well) and also forces me to do a great deal of thinking and planning to come up with a clear interpretation approach. It should be added that this system of work is common abroad and has many advantages.

How important is management for early music? Does its role differ here from the more usual production of classical music?

It's safe to say that no type of culture can get by today without good management. The less commercial a genre is, like early music as a branch of serious music, the more necessary management is. We don't have to go far for an example. A few years ago it took my breath away, in the positive sense of the phrase when I found information about a Schola Gregoriana Pragensis concert conducted by David Eben in the programme of a folk festival. This was a mark of excellent management, which also gives the young generation the chance to hear music that few people get to hear in the everyday course of events

Tell us something about the recording environment, technical side and realisation. Did you encounter technical difficulties when you were working on the recording?

I should just say several people have told me that the booklet lacks the necessary technical data on the production of the CD. But in fact all the information is present on the inner side of the inlay when you take the CD out. This information includes details of the exquisite picture that we used for the title page. I was told about this exquisite work by Milos Stehlik; I would like to take the opportunity of thanking him here.

Recordings that try to present particular liturgical forms in their integrity (the mass as a combination of proprium and ordinarium) are slowly beginning to appear in this country as they have abroad. The combination of figural ordinarium and choral proprium, and in some cases the alternation of the multi-part and choral parts of the Marian Vespers is nonetheless one of the main advantages of your recording.

It's hard to talk of "choice" of performers of Gregorian choral in this country, when Schola Gregoriana Pragensis has a bit of a monopoly here, but could you say something about your work with them?

I wouldn't agree that the Schola Gregoriana is completely isolated in this country. I think there are other good ensembles with the same interests here, but of course Schola Gregoriana is the most visible and the most famous. Currently they are the only professional ensemble that makes a living with this very specialised repertoire, and they are correspondingly careful to maintain the high level of their production. I can only say that that they have kept up this standard on our recording too, and that also applies to the communication between me and David Eben, which is direct, practical and based on a common attempt to get the best possible results from the project.

Your new recording dedicated to Bohuslav Matej Cernohorsky is due to come out in May. Do you plan to go on "mapping" Michna's work, which after all is among the most frequently performed Czech Baroque music?

I'm not sure if Adam Michna is one of the most frequently performed composers in this country. If so, then only a small part of his output consisting of a few songs from the Bohemian Lute or the Christmas carol "He Wants to Sleep". And if we look at some of the programmes at Czech classical music festivals, we are unlikely to find any of Michna's liturgical works. The situation is the same on the recording market, where there are still gaps. I'm sure that if someone as original as Michna had lived in his time in England or France, there would already have been several recordings of his complete works long ago. I don't know if it's a matter of our Czech small-mindedness that Michna's liturgical music has yet to be fully appreciated even--it seems--in expert circles. I would like to pay this debt with more recordings of music by this native of Jindrichuv Hradec.
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Title Annotation:interview
Author:Manas, Vladimir
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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