“Both works could be called French lyricism of the end of the 19th century. But they could also be called deep mysticism, amazing symbolism, or a message for all of humanity”, says the conductor Petr Altrichter about the Prague Spring Festival concert. “Franck and Fauré wrote their music about the soul and desire, about faith and ethereal love. This concert is about life and death, about musical paradise.”
The words quoted above are a poetic introduction to a concert that features compositions by two important French composers, César Franck and Gabriel Fauré, both outstanding organists, teachers for many years at the Paris Conservatoires, and co-founders and members of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris. The music of these two composers was fundamentally different, yet it shares in common its inspiration by the works of Richard Wagner and something for which the French use the word intériorité (interiority). “In addition, in 2022 it will have been exactly 200 years since the birth of César Franck, and that gives us a wonderful opportunity to introduce the festival public to his works that are otherwise neglected but are definitely worth hearing”, adds the Prague Spring Festival director of programming Josef Třeštík.
This is also the case with Franck’s composition Psyché. Although this symphonic poem with choir is regarded as a masterpiece of 19th-century orchestral music, the whole work is seldom performed. It is based on a story from classical mythology about a human being, the beautiful Princess Psyché, with whom the god Eros has fallen in love. Eros has abducted Psyché to his palace, where he visits her in the dark of night; she was never permitted to see him because that would mean losing him forever. “Psyché, however, was so much a human being that just like Adam in the Garden of Eden, she wanted to take everything into her hands, so she ruined everything and lost her paradise”, says Petr Altrichter. “But Eros loved her so much that he forgave her and took her back,” he adds.
The choice of subject matter for Franck’s sixth and final symphonic poem caused a bit of a stir among his admirers. The spiritually-minded composer, nicknamed “pater seraphicus” or “angelic father”, was known for his liking of Biblical themes, as can be seen from many of his organ compositions or such large-scale oratorios as Les Béatitudes or Rébecca. That, however, does not mean that he entirely avoided secular subject matter; he had based earlier symphonic poems on the poetry of Gottfried August Bürger and Victor Hugo. Still, his treatment of the Greek legend caused surprise and questions about why the composer had chosen the subject. The explanation can be found in the memoirs of Franck’s pupil Vincent d’Indy, according to whom Franck did not see Psyché as a tale of passionate love, but instead as a story about redemption and forgiveness.
The Requiem by Gabriel Fauré cannot be described as traditional, either. “Fauré wrote his Requiem to his own selections from the liturgical text”, says the conductor for the concert Petr Altrichter. “He returned to the early days of Christianity, when there was not yet a Dies irae. So there is no fury, no horror and fear; death was the path to In Paradisum, as the last movement of his Requiem is called. He only briefly mentions the Dies irae as part of the movement Libera me, Domine”, he explains. Therefore, in Faure’s conception the Requiem is not an account of the drama of the Last Judgement, but rather a work offering consolation and the peace of eternal rest, which is closely related to his own thinking about death. As the composer confided in a letter to Louis Aguettant: “Rather than as a painful experience, I view death as joyous liberation.” In addition, the composition is not dedicated to any particular person, as was customary with the requiems of other composers. In his own words, Fauré had written it “just for pleasure—if something of the kind can be said at all in this case.”
Petr Altrichter, one of the most important Czech conductors, first appeared at the Prague Spring Festival 45 years ago. He attracted international attention in 1976, when he won second prize and a special award from the jury at the renowned conducting competition in Besançon, France. On the basis of that success, he became an assistant to the legendary conductor Václav Neumann, the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic at the time, and that launched his extraordinarily successful career in music.
One of the important stages of his professional career was his eleven-year tenure at the helm of the Southwest German Philharmonic Orchestra of Constance, where he served as music director and chief conductor from 1993 to 2004. From 1997 to 2001 he was also the chief conductor and music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, with which he appeared in 2000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and at the Prague Spring Festival, when he also opened the festival with the Brno State Philharmonic. With the Liverpool orchestra, he made several recordings for the RLPO Live label that have been highly acclaimed by critics. “Petr Altrichter goes after the emotions”, wrote Dita Hradecká in a review of his concert for the journal Harmonie. “It was obvious that Petr Altrichter had penetrated to the very depths of the composition and that he not only understands it very well, but also, most importantly, was able to convey everything hidden and encrypted in it in a committed and convincing manner”, wrote Věroslav Němec for the same magazine about his performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. Petr Altrichter is invited to guest conduct the world’s famous orchestras, such as the London Philharmonic and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Besides appearing at the Prague Spring Festival, he performs regularly at other festivals including the Janáček May Festival, Smetana’s Litomyšl, Moravian Autumn, and the Bratislava Music Festival.
A native of Levoča, Slovakia, she is a graduate of the Košice Conservatoire, the Academy of the Performing Arts in Bratislava, and vocal classes taught by Peter Dvorský and Zlatica Livorová. She made her debut in 2006 as the countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro on the stage of the Slovak National Theatre, which subsequently became her home stage.
That same year, she advanced to the semi-final round at the Competizione dell`Opera in Dresden. Her other competition successes include participation in the semi-finals at the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens (2009) and in the finals of the international competition in Bayreuth and of the Hans Gabor Belvedere International Singing Competition in Vienna. Her high-profile roles include Desdemona (Otello), Violetta (La traviata), Rusalka (Rusalka), Mařenka (The Bartered Bride), Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni), and Mimi (La bohème), which she has sung in the Spanish city La Coruña, at the Staatstheater Braunschweig in Germany, at the State Opera in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, with the opera company of the Slovak National Theatre at the Pafos Aphrodite Opera Festival in Cyprus, and in the autumn of 2010 in an international production in Japan. She is a frequent guest at the National Theatre in Prague. One of the conductors with whom she has appeared as a concert artist is Juraj Valčuha; with the Slovak Philharmonic under his baton, she has given performances of Beethoven’s Egmont and of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. “Eva Hornyáková performed her vocal numbers with feeling and with appropriate stylistic purity”, wrote Ivan Marton in a review for the website Klasika Plus. She has also collaborated with Jakub Hrůša and his Bamberg Symphony; in 2018 at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival she performed Dvořák’s Requiem with them. This season she collaborated with Petr Altrichter and the Czech Philharmonic in a performance of the oratorio Saint Ludmila.
The German baritone Stephan Genze has been called “one of the most beautiful voices around today” by Gramophone magazine. He was born in 1973 in the German city Erfurt. At the age of eight he joined the world-famous boys’ choir at the Protestant St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he worked until 1991. Later, he studied under Hans-Joachim Beyer at the Leipzig Conservatoire, Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Höll at the Karlsruhe Conservatoire, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Berlin, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Zurich.
Among his first major successes were his victories at the Johannes Brahms International Competition in Hamburg (1994) and the Hugo Wolf Competition in Stuttgart (1994). He won the prestigious Brahms-Preis in 1998. The scope of his musical activities is very broad. Besides his opera and concert activity, he is one of the world’s most acclaimed interpreters of the German Lieder repertoire. He has sung on the stages of Berlin’s Staatsoper, Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and Dresden’s Semperoper, and he has appeared at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Alice Tully Hall in New York, and Suntory Hall in Tokyo, collaborating with many famous conductors including Thomas Hengelbrock, Fabio Luisi, Kent Nagano, Kurt Masur, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. His recordings have won numerous prestigious awards (Gramophone Award, Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Timbre de Platine, Diapason d’Or). In a January 2021 review of the recording of Penderecki’s Symphony No. 6 (“Chinese Poems”), a critic for Musicweb International wrote: “Genz proves to be the perfect choice to perform these songs; his richly coloured vocal timbre adapts seamlessly to mood and text.” He will soon be performing in Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana at the Capitole de Toulouse, in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at the Opera de Toulon in France, and in Mozart’s Coronation Mass with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo. He divides his time between Berlin, Salzburg, and Paris, where he teaches at the Conservatoire National de Paris.
The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno is an ensemble at the very pinnacle of choral artistry not only in a Czech context, but also worldwide. Since its founding in 1990, it has been appearing at all of Europe’s prestigious festivals, where it impresses listeners with its compactness of sound and wide range of expressive resources, for which it has also received critical acclaim.
For example, in June 2019 the music critic for the portal Opera Plus Anna Šerých wrote: “The high quality and power of the interpretation delivered in brilliantly spectacular beauty were thanks to the perfect singing of the choir—the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno was simply breathtaking.” The choir focuses on the oratorio, cantata, and operatic repertoire. The choir regularly works with the world’s top orchestras and conductors (Dennis Russel Davies, Christoph Eschenbach, Ivan Fischer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Manfred Honeck, Neeme, Paavo, and Kristian Järvi, Zubin Mehta, Sir Simon Rattle, Jakub Hrůša et al.). The Czech public regularly encounters them at concerts in Brno, Prague, Ostrava, Olomouc, Litomyšl, and České Budějovice. The choir’s extensive discography has earned it many important awards (Echo Klassik, Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Tokusen). With its founder, the choirmaster and composer Petr Fiala, the choir was featured at a concert in the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall at last year’s Prague Spring Festival.