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Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679 - 1745): Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta

Marián Krejcík, bassa
Collegium 1704 & Collegium Vocale 1704
Dir: Václav Luks

rec: Nov 21 - 25, 2011, Prague, Studio Domovina
Accent - ACC24259 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.38'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae pro hebdomada sancta (ZWV 55) (Lamentatio I pro die Mercurii Sancto)a; Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta (ZWV 55)

The Lamentationes Jeremiae and the Tenebrae Responsoria belong to the core of the liturgical music for Holy Week. Many settings of these texts have been composed through the centuries. The Responsories are mostly performed in settings from the renaissance. In the baroque era not many complete sets were written; mostly some texts were selected to be set. There are probably more compositions on the full texts of the Lamentations - that is to say, those parts from the book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which were part of the liturgy for Holy Week. In the baroque era the Lamentations were particularly popular in France, where many composers wrote one or several sets of Leçons de Ténèbres.

This repertoire for Holy Week was connected to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church; it took the place which in the Lutheran part of Germany was given to settings of the Passion story as told in the four gospels. That explains that relatively few settings by German composers have come down to us. The compositions by Jan Dismas Zelenka take a pretty unique place in the musical landscape of early 18th-century Germany.

Zelenka worked for the most part of his life at the court in Dresden. This was part of Protestant Germany; for many years during the 17th century its Kapellmeister had been Heinrich Schütz, one of the main representatives of Lutheran sacred music. However, in 1697 Augustus II 'the Strong', Elector of Saxonia, converted to Catholicism in order to be able to become King of Poland. Soon he dissolved the Hofkapelle which was once directed by Schütz, and reorganized it into the Evangelische Hofkirchenmusik which received little support. Most attention went to the Churfürstlich Sächsische Capell- und Cammer-Musique, which was to build up Catholic liturgical practice at the court. To that end a court chapel was installed in 1708. Catholic worship got a boost when Crown Prince Frederick August II married Maria Josepha - eldest daughter of the Habsburg emperor Joseph I - in 1719.

In 1722 Zelenka was commissioned to compose the music for Holy Week, probably at the instigation of Maria Josepha herself. The result was the set of Responsories which is the subject of the present recording, and the six Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae. Zelenka did not complete the Responsories in 1722, but finished them only a year later. The Lamentations are also incomplete: Zelenka set only the two first lamentations for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Apparently he had planned to set the last three as well, but seems never to have done so. The Lamentations are far better known than the Responsories, and are mostly performed independently. That makes this recording especially worthwhile, even though the Responsories have been recorded before.

From a financial/commercial point of view it may be reasonable that the performers had to confine their recording to just two discs. Artistically speaking it is highly regrettable. Only one setting of Zelenka's Lamentations receives here its proper liturgical place, the first for Maundy Thursday. The other Lamentations are sung in plainchant. The lessons have been drastically cut for the same reason. That means that for the time being we can still only dream of a complete liturgical performance of Zelenka's music for Holy Week. To that also belongs his setting of the Miserere (ZWV 56), which obviously is also omitted here.

The liturgy for the three last days of Holy Week consist of three nocturns. The lessons of the first are from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the lessons of the second are taken from the writings of St Augustine, whereas the third nocturn includes extracts from the letters of St Paul in the New Testament. With the exception of the first Lamentation for Maundy Thursday, all lessons are sung in plainchant by a solo voice. Václav Luks has opted for a performance in baroque style. This means that the singing is more declamatory than one would normally expect in plainchant, and that elements in the text are emphasized through dynamic accents. The latter is especially the case in the Lamentations and in some of the writings of St Augustine. I think that this approach is basically correct as plainchant in the baroque era wasn't considered a relic from the past but as current as newly-created music. The Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts is less plausible.

As I mentioned above the Responsories have been recorded before. In the recordings which I know the voices are supported by basso continuo alone. However, in his liner-notes Gerhard Poppe mentions that Zelenka has precisely indicated where instruments should play colla voce. As I don't know the score I can't tell whether these indications have all been observed. Poppe also states that certainly not more than two singers per part were involved in the performances in Dresden. That has been largely ignored here: the vocal ensemble is considerably larger. Only five responsories are performed with a vocal octet; here the voices are supported by the basso continuo alone.

The vocal ensemble is excellent; the transparency and the audibility of the text could have been better, and that indicates that a smaller group - like the eight singers Poppe referred to - would have been preferable. That wouldn't have diminished the expression and the incisive character of these performances. Zelenka is done ample justice here, and the many twists and turns in melody and harmony are conveyed to full effect. Whatever the regrets in regarding to the cuts and omissions, this is a monument of Zelenka's art and an invaluable addition to the discography of music for Holy Week.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Collegium 1704

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