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Fanfare Magazine: 43:4 (03-04/2020) 
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Nibiru 01612231

Code-barres / Barcode :  8595056601612

Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

About 1726 Jan Dismas Zelenka, the Kapellmeister at the Dresden cathedral, began a series of three volumes of Psalm settings for Vespers, meant to be a compendium of works that would be useful over the course of time. The first volume, completed that year, includes a flurry of works composed in 1725, probably within the span of only three months during the fall. It was intended that these compositions would have been performed en concert in one go, a sort of complete program, ending with the De profundis clamavi, a work that appears as the last work on the disc but is of uncertain date, reflecting as it does a revision of a work from the year prior.

The music of these Catholic works is every bit the equivalent of the cantata music we usually associate with Bach, and it is no wonder that this composer was so much interested in becoming Zelenka’s successor in Dresden. That would have been a step up from his duties (often tortuous in and of themselves) in Leipzig, as the Saxon capital was a more cosmopolitan place. It boasted better organs, a more expanded choral tradition, and finally a much better professional orchestral ensemble. That it was Catholic and Bach was not appears not to have mattered. It offered many more opportunities musically. Of course, Bach did not achieve his ambition, but perhaps the reason why can be found a bit in these works, here spread out over three discs. This first one contains the earliest works by the composer, and one can count one modern premiere, the Confitebor (ZWV 72). All but one of the seven works are in multi-movement format; only the Laudate pueri (ZWV 82), is in a single large-scale movement. This is a spare piece, opening with a bass solo above a walking basso ostinato before the entrance of the upper choral voices. These two groups have a nice duet that merges towards the end in a conflation of good choral homophony. The Magnificat as a genre is usually of major proportions, but here it is only three short movements. The bulk of the text is condensed into the first, with its martial opening and flashy trumpet outbursts. The fanfares are actually in the bass part and strings, which makes a rather nice orchestrational change. Only at the fecit potentiam do the brass repeat these. The counterpoint is quite complex at times, but it can also be gentle, such as the stately second movement. Of course, the Amen is a beautiful piece of counterpoint, a fugue that is worthy of Handel in its broad scope.

The In exitu Israel is filled with swirling sequences in the opening chorus, with lots of suspensions, syncopations, and choral expostulations. The doxology begins with ethereal floating solo voices, which then devolves into a particularly gnarly chromatic fugal Amen. The Dixit Dominus has a certain Vivaldian tone in the opening movement, with its unison string accompaniment and static soprano line that soars above the sequencing. The De torrente rolls along in the scalar bass line, though the tenor has a more sedate tune—that is, until he occasionally breaks out into coloratura. The long Confitebor begins with spare choral counterpoint that slowly unfolds, only to continue on into a rather lively aria for the bass with swirling sequences in the strings and doubled oboes. The Redemptionem misit is a soft lament with muted strings, while the following pair of choruses are written with a sense of powerful purpose. The doxology concludes with a particularly difficult fugue. The Beatus vir is composed of various contrapuntal movements, ranging from the suspensions of the Peccator videbit to the spare fugal Amen. The final work on the disc is the De profundis clamavi, which begins positively funereal in tone, with a slow marching bass line and the strings building up slowly with countermelodies, before the bass solo trio begins to weave their lines about each other. The Si iniquitatis even has a brief moment of chant before the mournful chorus that marches slowly to its solemn close.

The music is effective and moving. What does it justice, however, is the excellent performance by the choral group Ensemble Inégal, whose clarity of diction is matched only by the broad, sweeping textures they achieve. In the ethereal portions, they are light and clear, but in the fugues each of the lines comes out distinctly. The Prague Baroque Soloists blend well with the vocal ensemble, and the tempos are generous where necessary, but implacable when Zelenka wishes a steady and forceful foundation. This is an excellent disc and one that displays the power and beauty of Zelenka’s talent for sacred music. It would be hard to see how Bach might have competed here, but it is well known that he found Zelenka’s music moving and first-rate. This disc surely proves it. Highly recommended.


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