The sound of the cornetto with the human voice is unfamiliar to many people. According to Hana Blažíková and Bruce Dickey, the combination is literally breathtaking. The Breathtaking Collective is an ensemble of musicians who strive for one thing—to show audiences how rich a musical and sonic experience the human voice can create in combination with this unique wind instrument. Bruce Dickey decided to devote his life to this peculiarly curved instrument that has its origins in the Middle Ages and flourished most widely in the 16th and 17th centuries. The cornetto attracts attention not only because of its unmistakable shape, but also because it straddles the boundary between woodwind and brass instruments. It is made of wood, but is played with a mouthpiece like a trumpet. During the 19th century, the cornetto vanished from the musical scene, and after a temporary exile, it experienced a renaissance in the middle of the last century. That renaissance at the end of the 1970s was thanks to Dickey. This prophet of an unusual instrument shared his passion with students at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, where he taught for over 40 years. During his long career, Dickey has collaborated with many important representatives of historically informed interpretation, including Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, and many others.
In 2014 soprano Hana Blažíková made her mark as a noteworthy artist and an extraordinary figure in the field of early music. Blažíková was born in Prague, and from her childhood she sang in the choir. She was not in a hurry to sing as a soloist. “I think one should spend one’s youth singing in a choir,” said the singer, “and wait for vocal maturity before devoting oneself to a solo career.” Blažíková studied singing and musicology, and she took part regularly at music courses. Through a combination of activities, she has been able to immerse herself deeply into the world of early music and of historically informed interpretation. In 2010 and 2013 she took part in the acclaimed tour with performances of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion organised by the famed conductor Philippe Herreweghe. The great Belgian artist admires Blažíková’s singing and has invited her repeatedly for collaborations.
She has collaborations to her credit with a large number of important ensembles that devote themselves to the interpretation of music of the Baroque, Renaissance, and Middle Ages. In 2017 she was one of the soloists for John Eliot Gardiner’s project Monteverdi 450, in which she appeared all around the world in operas by Claudio Monteverdi. Blažíková also plays the Gothic harp. “Starting to take harp lessons was one of the best ideas I ever had in my life,” she says. Blažíková has always found the human voice and harp to make a beautiful sonic combination.
Visions and Dreams – that is the name of a Prague Spring project that will present three concerts in a single day with the best Czech and foreign musicians specialising in the historically informed interpretation of early music.
The Breathtaking Collective, the Tiburtina Ensemble, and Collegium Marianum will present thoughtfully conceived programmes of music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque alongside works by contemporary composers. “We can look forward to the music of the troubadours, Palestrina, Vivaldi, or Telemann, as well as to music written especially for old instruments and voices by the composers Michal Nejtek, Jan Ryant Dřízal, Jiří Gemrot, Ivan Moody, and Calliope Tsoupaki,” says the festival’s programming director Josef Třeštík. “The dialogue between the old and the new, something that was already so resonant in the vocal works of Pärt or Reich, gives modern composers seeking a new sound the opportunity of using the silky, transparent timbres of period instruments, which offer even greater acoustical wealth and nuance than electronic instruments or large orchestras,” says Jana Semerádová, a player of the Baroque transverse flute, the artistic director of the ensemble Collegium Marianum, and a member of the Prague Spring Artistic Council.
In the project Visions and Dreams, the audience, the ensemble Breathtaking Collective, Blažíková, and Dickey will jointly discover the beauty of other sonic combinations. Her voice will intertwine with the sound of the cornetto, violin (Veronika Skuplik), viola da gamba (Mieneke van der Velden), and harpsichord (Kris Verhelst).
The programme consists of works the ensemble has already issued on its two albums and concentrates on old repertoire and on new music written on commission for them.
Motets by Nicolò Corradini, Sigismondo d’India, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina highlight the colouristic affinity of the human voice and the cornetto. In sonatas by Dario Castello and Giuseppe Scarani, they will show how instrumental music of the early Baroque was based on imitation of the human voice. Three composers, two men and a woman, were asked to write pieces that would respect the mindset of composers of the 17th century in attempting to create a seamless blend of vocal and instrumental elements.
Ivan Moody is an English conductor, musicologist, composer, and last but not least, an Orthodox priest living and working in Lisbon. His musical language, which bears clearly discernible traces of plainchant, has captivated many ensembles and performers including the legendary Hilliard Ensemble. He composed O Archangels and Angels in 2019, and the seven-minute piece is contemplative in spirit. The words are based on an Orthodox liturgical text, and elements of almost oriental melody can be heard in places in the vocal line and the solo cornetto part.
Archangels also inspired the American composer, conductor, and keyboard player Julian Wachner who lives in New York and mainly composes liturgical works. He has said that his music spans “between the Apollonian world of sacred music and the Dionysian world of the opera stage.” A feeling for drama is also reflected in his composition The Vision of the Archangels based on a text by the English poet Rupert Brooke, famed for his anti-war poetry from the period of the First World War.
The Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki has long resided in the Netherlands. She has several operas to her credit, but she also devotes herself to many other genres and has long been composing for historical musical instruments as well. Two of her compositions will be heard on the programme. Tsoupaki wrote Thin Air during the pandemic in 2020, and in it she expressed her compassion for the victims of the coronavirus. Mélena imí (Nigra sum, 2015) is based on a Biblical text from the Song of Songs in Byzantine Greek. “Here, Blažíková and Dickey melt together in impressive attacks at the unison and then separate to create in a dialog filled with mystery and profundity”, wrote Denis Morrier in a review for Diapason, and he concluded with a comment that could be applied to all of the activities of the ensemble Breathtaking Collective: “Better than a demonstration, it is a communion of artists.”