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Fanfare Magazine: 43:4 (03-04/2020) 
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Nibiru 01642231

Code-barres / Barcode : 8595056601643

Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

Nibiru has delivered here the third of four discs devoted to the Psalmi Vespertini by Jan Dismas Zelenka, one of the Baroque’s most proficient composers. As noted elsewhere in this issue, these form a body of work that was put together by the composer himself as a set or sequence of various motet-cantatas for Vespers. Here we have eight in the group, all apparently composed around 1728 for services in the Marienkirche in Dresden, where Zelenka was Kapellmeister. He entered them in a special catalog about 1728, forming three cycles (the Psalmi Vespertini II has been reviewed elsewhere, and the fourth group, the Psalmi Varii, forms a later addition). Zelenka was particularly focused on music for the Vespers services, for in addition to his own set, he apparently obtained copies of almost 90 additional pieces by various composers throughout Europe. Unfortunately, the third set is missing six works (and has been since the 18th century), which makes it incomplete. No matter; what survives is a fitting end to the cycle, though one might regret the lacuna for what it would have contained.

From a scoring standpoint, all of these works are rather sparsely orchestrated, with only a pair of oboes and a bassoon complementing the strings, but in keeping with the other sets, the solo and choral writing is tightly gathered. Of the eight remaining pieces, five are receiving their modern premieres on this disc. The first of these, Confitebor tibi Domine (ZWV 70) opens with lazy and flowing melody that is a good foundation for the solo tenor and bass, and later soprano and alto, in duet. The alternation between soloists and the instrumental ritornellos reminds one of a Bach Passion in the even flow. The Redemptionem misit is forceful and decisive, quite homophonic in structure, but this only sets up the floating contrapuntal cantus firmus Amen. The second is the three-movement In convertendo (ZWV 91), which begins with a chromatically gnarly choral line that seems more episodic than fugal, despite the imitative entrances. The doxology follows Zelenka’s usual pattern of a slow and thoughtful Gloria patri which introduces the final Sicut erat fugue. The soloists in the first are quite ethereal. The single-movement Beatus vir has a quite challenging tenor line, which runs and skips with some nice coloratura before the static chorus enters. The final doxology is woven into the line and features the two soprano soloists weaving about before the mildly contrapuntal choral finale. The Confitebor Angelorum (ZWV 100) could have been written for an oratorio by Handel, with its steady but rapid walking bass line above which one finds the alto solo entering in counter-point, and concluding with a rather interesting choral part that sometimes is surprising in its melismas and leaps in the voice-leading. Like the others, the final portion of the doxology is an imitative double fugue that seems rather less strict than episodic. The final premiere is the three-movement Domine probasti me (ZWV 101), in which the main section seems a bit more modern in the short introduction and focused on the soloists, who weave a nice little arabesque until the homophonic choral entrance, and the work continues alternating free polyphony with choral homophony in a relentless manner. The doxology here repeats the pattern instead of a conventional fugue during the Sicut erat portion.

Of the three other cantata-motets, the In exitu Israel (ZWV 84) is the most Bachian (or rather Zelenkan), with its soaring soprano choral cantus firmus above the contrapuntal lower voices, but the short introduction leads to the gentle Simulacra gentium. The doxology repeats the opening style, thought the counterpoint underneath is far more aggressive. The Laudate Dominum (ZWV 87) has a nice interplay between the tenor and chorus, both with some rather impressive figuration. It is quite short, and the concluding Amen movement is almost as long as the main section. The Memento Domine David (ZWV 98) is slow and stately, with a rather lyrical opening movement with the usual alteration between soprano solo and orchestra. The Si custodierint reduces the forces accompanying the tenor (and later bass) solo to the continuo, with the instruments acting as a connecting ritornello.

The pieces of the cycle are rather short, and therefore it is necessary to insert at the beginning an anomalous work, the Da pacem Domine (ZWV 167), which otherwise doesn’t belong to the cycle. This is a good introduction, as it builds with slowly unfolding choral statements above a softly swirling violin accompaniment in the first movement. The second is more lively, with some good contrapuntal writing, though not fugal in the slightest.

These works are a fitting conclusion to the three cycles and demonstrate that Zelenka was quite inventive in his music, though he does follow some recognizable patterns, particularly in the doxologies. These are fully developed by the excellent performance of the Prague Baroque Soloists and their choral counterpart, the Ensemble Inégal, whose clarity and diction make these works come alive. All four of the Vespers cycle discs should be a part of any collection of Baroque sacred music, as they are some of the most interesting and inventive of the period. Highly recommended.

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