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GRAMOPHONE ( 05 / 2018)
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Reviewer: Charlotte Gardner

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Heinz Holliger first rediscovered and recorded Zelenka’s six sonatas for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo for Archiv in 1972. That unearthing was, for Baroque oboists and bassoonists, akin to many birthdays and Christmases coming at once, such is these works’ wealth of fascinating contrapuntal interweavings, finger-twisting virtuosity and emotional range, and all of course wrapped up in Zelenka’s unique, ‘Baroque experimental’ voice. All of which means that, despite the fact that Zelenka’s name and music remain relatively little known, when it comes to these six sonatas there is a pretty healthy catalogue of recordings already on the market; not least a vivid and flowing second go at it from Holliger and friends in 1999, this time for ECM.

Still, if anyone is capable of standing up with the best of them it should be Ensemble Berlin Prag, because when the group was formed in 2005 by the three soloists on this album – the Czech oboist Vilém Veverka and Israeli bassoonist Mor Biron, under the guidance of German oboist Dominik Wollenweber – it was the music of Zelenka and Couperin that formed the basis of their repertoire.

Happily this is indeed a strong offering. Broad brushstrokes-wise, there’s a lovely bubbling legato flow and sense of effortlessness to the whole, with its sensitive harpsichord and basso continuo support. Also some particularly easy-on-the-ear softer engineering, which leaves just a little bit more space between musicians and listener than is often customary; this approach has reaped particular  dividends in No 5’s first movement Allegro, where that leaping unison opening is revealed to be every bit as striking – and rather more attractive – when not punching itself straight into our ears. More excellent moments include the three soloists’ smart, beautifully shaped and tightly twisted-together realisations of the ornate contrapuntal writing of No 1’s Allegro. Then there’s the B flat Sonata, No 3, where we get to enjoy violinist Jakub Černohorsky’s effortless gelling with the winds, and the unshowy softness with which Biron nimbly nails the Allegro’s extreme bassoon virtuosities. All in all, proper top-drawer stuff.

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