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  42:1 (09-10 /2018)
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Reviewer: Michael De Sapio

The image of a winding staircase greets us on the cover of this release, an appropriate visual counterpart to the delightfully twisted counterpoint which runs riot over these exuberant scores. Zelenka’s six trio sonatas have been recorded by a number of period groups but have also been a draw for modern-instrument players, starting from the pioneering 1973 set by Heinz Holliger. Ensemble Berlin Prag is also a modern-instrument group, playing at modern pitch, but the members have thoroughly assimilated period-informed style in terms of articulation, phrasing, and tuning to produce a best-of-both-worlds experience. The set is beautifully recorded, and everything is touched with supreme competence and skill. It mystifies me how wind players are able to spin out Zelenka’s endless virtuosic lines with nary an audible breath. The virtuoso oboe and bassoon playing is complemented by unfussy continuo support of violone and harpsichord (the lively and resourceful Barbara Maria Willi). For the Third Sonata, violinist Jakub Černohorský joins in the fun.


My reference comparison recording is by the period group Ensemble Zefiro, which includes a number of noted Italian early music specialists. Zefiro employ a more colorful continuo section of theorbo and organ or harpsichord. They play with well-judged tempos and a good sense of the ebb and flow, tension and release in the music. Theirs might be an ideal period-instrument version, and some listeners will feel that they bring out more dramatic contrasts than Ensemble Prag’s more streamlined playing.


Of course, there are differences in tone quality between a Baroque oboe and a modern one that will also be a determining factor for the listener. To my taste the Baroque oboe is richer and more characterful, the modern oboe more streamlined but also somewhat pinched. Ultimately it comes down to a matter of taste, but for me nothing can replace the character and flavor of period instruments in this repertoire.

The present recording was supervised by Reinhardt Goebel, who also contributed a rather eccentric program note. Goebel is clearly a Zelenka fan and names him as one of the five best composers of the early 18th century, along with Bach, Handel, Leclair, and Locatelli (!). My only complaint is that the discs are difficult to extract from the plastic jewel case; one fears that something will break. That aside, this is a worthy new recording of these sublimely quirky pieces by Zelenka.

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