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  41:1 (09-10 /2017)
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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

One of the main figures active in Prague during the 18th century was Jan Zach (1713–1773). His early career was there as an organist, but in 1745 he wangled a post as Kapellmeister in the city of Mainz. There he ran afoul of virtually everyone and finally, after his dismissal about a decade later, he tried for a post in the small city of Trier. Being unsuccessful in obtaining that, he held a number of temporary posts, until he finally was given a job with the court of Oettingen-Wallerstein. Unfortunately, he did not live to occupy the post, for he died suddenly in the town of Ellwangen, presumably on a journey to the Tirol, where he had connections at an alpine Cistercian monastery. Although his career path was a rocky one, he was well regarded during his lifetime, having a reputation as a talented composer and humble man.

Not surprisingly, a number of his works have been recorded, so the discography is not insubstantial for someone perhaps not as well known as his contemporaries such as Johann Stamitz. Of particular note is a series comprising his music for strings on Ars that has now grown to three volumes, and there are a couple of sacred motets, symphonies, and concertos on various labels, not all of them Czech. This barely touches the entire corpus, for he was prolific enough for his era, with no fewer than 26 Masses, three Requiems, and a substantial number of other sacred works to his credit. Moreover, he excelled at writing for organ, writing numerous fugues and other smaller pieces. I could only find a couple of symphonies, but his total of 48 is not insignificant either. This disc includes one of the Requiems and one of the set of Vespers, done in a live recording this past year.

It is not known for whom Zach composed this C-Minor Requiem, but the solemnity is quite personal. The restless ostinato of the opening Requiem aeternam is insistent, but the intervening Te decet is a flowing lyrical piece, with the occasional unisons between the voice and strings only hinting at the more serious tone of the work. As is common, a rather gnarly fugue completes the opening, demonstrating Zach’s ability to write complex counterpoint. Of course, every composer has his (or her) own voice in the Sequence, where the highly descriptive text begs special attention. The powerful punctuations of the Dies irae are admonitory, but when the soloists enter, the mood becomes less strict. A trombone functions for the Tuba mirum, possibly the result of the German translation of die letzte Posaune that substitutes that instrument for a “last trumpet,” but it is done here with fanfares that at least serve as a nod to the latter. The Lacrymosa is gripping, with contrasting dynamics and a solid trombone choir underlay that makes the weeping less sorrowful and more of a similar admonition to the listeners, besides serving as an introduction to a brief interlude of counterpoint. This same fugal interpolation appears again at the Quam olim Abrahæ. Of the rest, the operatic Benedictus is lighter in tone, while the Hosanna pairs the male and female voices in an antecedent-consequent duel. As appropriate, the work ends with a complex fugue that winds up with some nice homophony. Though not long as Requiems go, Zach’s work is neatly compact and runs the gamut of the emotions and descriptions of the text.

The Vespers, on the other hand, are much more joyous. The Dixit Dominus is divided into five short tracks, though these actually represent sections rather than complete movements. The violins twirl about a bit, providing an overlay for the straighforward choral work, some of which sounds a bit chant-like. The Juravit Dominus is a fluid duet for tenor and bass, mostly in parallel thirds, while the Dominis ad dextris begins with a haunting solo above sustained strings, only to be interrupted by a powerful and flashy colophon, with the same contrast, albeit with varying violin accompaniment, occurs throughout. One finds an almost folk-like melody that appears in the tenor solo of the Laetatus sum, while the Nisi Dominus has an urgency about it with a rhythmically active string accompaniment. The Magnificat contains a variety of musical effects, such as the lyrical Quia respexit or the Fecit potentiam with the violins skirling about furiously above the bass solo.

Works as kaleidoscopic as these two are demand considerable discipline, for the textures are such that there is nowhere to hide, either for the voices or for instruments. For a live recording, this performance is excellent. The bass of Jaromír Nosek is suitably resonant and virile, while the two women soloists have clear and distinctive tones. Tenor Čeněk Svoboda does wobble a bit in the higher parts (some of which are quite difficult challenges for the voice), but he blends extremely well with his colleagues in the often changeable solo textures that Zach requires. The chorus and orchestra also perform their works with clarity, and I find the tempos very closely adhering to the mood of the text. Indeed, one would find it hard to think of it as a live recording at all. In short, not only does it support the notion that Zach is a significant Czech composer of the period, it does much to demonstrate the beauty of the sacred music he wrote. Recommended.

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