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Fanfare Magazine: 32:4 (03-04/2009) 
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Nibiru 0147-221

Code-barres / Barcode : 8595056601476

Reviewer: Michael Carter

It wasn’t that many years ago that the name of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) was largely known only to musicologists. In the day, some of us were curious enough to have purchased a Decca vinyl disc with Zelenka’s Sinfonia a 8 and Overture in F Major performed by the New York-based orchestra of the Clarion Concert Society conducted by the late Newell Jenkins. In the intervening years, things have begun to change, even if slowly.

The value of Zelenka’s stock has increased significantly in the last several years and to the point that the name of this once-obscure Bohemian double-bass-player employed by the court in Dresden is now being mentioned in the same breath as Bach and Telemann (who both knew and respected Zelenka, and owned copies of his work). Furthermore, the availability of recordings of Zelenka’s music has increased to the point that in the case of some works (the trio sonatas and orchestral works) we now have a choice of several recordings—using either period or modern instruments—at our fingertips.

Zelenka’s catalog of compositions looks quite small if placed beside those of Sebastian Bach and the seemingly inexhaustible Telemann, but in this relatively undersized collection lies evidence of an individualistic and extremely gifted composer. In an earlier interview published in Volume 25:4 of Fanfare, conductor Frieder Bernius observed, “I think it may take several more decades [for the public] to really appreciate this composer. His strengths are not to be found in the rich harmonic language or the balanced rhythm we know from Bach, but in imaginative formal development.”

Indeed, Zelenka’s music is abundant in imagination, and more than occasionally his imagination is idiosyncratic. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, irregular phrase lengths, shifts between parallel major and minor tonalities and—by the standards of his time—remarkable harmonic progressions (e.g., the concluding measures of the opening movement to the Overture in F have the ensemble finding its way home by way of the remote tonality of D♭ as opposed to the expected dominant, or C). These “modernisms” aside, Zelenka was astutely aware of and, to a degree, influenced by his musical ancestors; he was a student of the great contrapuntist Fux, and his fugues exhibit a strong sense of musico-rhetorical expression. Zelenka also effectively employed cantus firmus and ostinato. So our composer was a man with one foot in the past and another in his own time. It also should come as no surprise that—given Zelenka’s tendency for the unorthodox­—one at times hears things that appear to adumbrate Classicism.

The masses recorded on these CDs date from the 1730s, with Missa Purificationis being composed in 1733 and Missa Votiva dating from 1739; the Litany comes from 1744, the year before Zelenka’s death. Sizeable forces are demanded for the Missa Purificationis beate virginis Mariae. In addition to the normal complement of strings, Zelenka’s opulent score employs oboes (who alternately play flutes, as was expected at the time), bassoon, four trumpets, and timpani, SSATB soloists, and SATB choir. The orchestra is reduced to four-part strings with oboes and bassoon for the Missa Votiva. Here Zelenka retains the SATB choir and also uses the standard solo quartet (SATB); identical forces are pressed into service for the Litaniae lauretanae. The litany is named after the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto (Italy), where the use of the text appears to date from the middle decade of the 16th century.

The plan of the masses follows the tradition of the so-called “number” mass: each segment of the text is set as a separate movement, a plan that was common in the era. Missa Purificationis beate virginis Mariae was not composed­—as the title suggests—for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin on February 2, but on the occasion of the Queen’s first visit to the church following the birth of her son. Missa Votiva was quilled—as its title indicates­—to fulfill a vow, apparently made during a serious illness. A note on the score explains the title; it reads, Missa hanc A[d] M[ajorem] D[ei] G[loriam] ex voto posuit J[an] D[ismas] Z[elenka] post recuperatam Deo Fautore Salutem.

From the opening phrases of these compositions, there is no doubt that we are about to experience something special, even if it is in a Zelenkian sort of way. He places his seal on the genre with appropriate devotion and style, employing and deploying his forces with both agility and confidence. In the stylistic sense, the old is mixed with the new: choral passages that could have been written half a century earlier are placed alongside arias displaying the latest in operatic expression. Yet Zelenka is no mere copycat. When you least expect it, he toys with you, taking you in an unforeseen direction, melodically or harmonically, before again setting his feet on the expected path. For example, Zelenka expectedly establishes the home key at the opening of the Missa Purificationis and makes the ears comfortable. But then a rapid and unanticipated shift in harmony occurs before a curious and quasi-wandering unison passage takes us back to D Major. The “Qui tollis” opens with a fugal subject that sends the chorus through a sort of harmonic labyrinth before resolving into the radiant D Major opening of the “Qui sedes.”

The Missa Votiva is also stunning in its invention, with numerous impressive moments, including a rather oddly structured “Gratias agimus tibi,” not to mention some quirky phrasing and unexpected chromatics in the “Quoniam.” Then there’s the “Crucifixus,” whose fugue takes more than one unanticipated route toward resolution before launching headlong into “Et resurrexit,” which holds its own set of surprises.

Each of these recordings heaps glory upon glory by way of their exceptional advocacy, that advocacy being well placed, given Zelenka’s musical sphere. The tonal beauty and clarity produced by the soloists and choirs is easily matched by the clean, but never antiseptic playing of the period-instrument orchestras that contribute to the mix with a nice luster and razor-sharp precision, resulting in performances that exhibit compelling enthusiasm and unparalleled advocacy. The sound is natural and sweet and is buoyed by the marvelous acoustics of the venues.

Given the number of recordings of Zelenka’s music in recent years, I cannot imagine the adventurous or discriminating collector either not being familiar with or not owning any recordings of his music. But there must be some among you and if you want to take a chance, don’t stick your toe in the water. Just jump in with either­­—or both­—of these discs; you’ll be in for a real musical experience, and you’ll probably get hooked just as I did!


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