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CD reviews

Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679 - 1745): Masses

[I] Missa Sancti Josephi (ZWV 14)
Julia Lezhneva, soprano; Daniel Taylor, alto; Tilman Lichdi, tenor; Jonathan Sells, bass
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Barockorchester Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius
rec: April 16 - 18, 2018, Reutlingen-Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.279 (© 2018) (57'51")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

De profundis (ZWV 50); In exitu Israel (ZWV 84); Missa Sancti Josephi (ZWV 14)

[KS] Henriette Autenrieth, Sandra Bernius, Clémence Boullu, Katharina Eberl*, Carolin Franke, Aline Wilhelmy, soprano; Elke Rutz, contralto; Friedemann Engelbert, Erik Eschweiler, Adam Schilling, Ulrich Weller*, Timothy Wong, alto; David Geier, Jo Holzwarth*, Oliver Kringel, Tobias Mäthger, Klemens Mölkner, Berthold Schindler, tenor; Sönke Tams Freier*, Johannes Hill, Mathis Koch*, Adolph Seidel, Marcus Stäbler, bass (*solo)
[BS] Susanne Kaiser, Christian Prader, transverse flute; Susanne Regel, Susanne Kohnen, oboe; Frank Forst, bassoon; Thomas Hauschild, Ursula Dummer, horn; Paul Bosworth, Peter Mankarious, trumpet; Martin Jopp, Stefanie Irgang, Dietlind Mayer, Annette Schäfer-Teuffel, Claudia Schneider, Margret Baumgartl, Christina Eychmüller, Miriam Risch-Graulich, Helmut Winkel, violin; Annette Schmidt, Thomas Gehring, Andreas Gerhardus, viola; Juris Teichmanis, Stefan Kraut, cello; Tobias Lampelzammer, double bass; Bernward Lohr, organ; Peter Hartmann, timpani

[II] Missa Omnium Sanctorum (ZWV 21)
Carlotta Colombo, soprano; Filippo Mineccia, alto; Cyril Auvity, tenor; Lukas Zeman, bass
Dir: Ruben Jais
rec: Sept 7 - 9, 2018, Milan, Auditorium di Milano
Glossa - GCD 924103 (© 2019) (50'16")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[ripienists] Alessandra Gardini, Caterina Iora, Valentina Vitolo, soprano; Isabella Di Pietro, Nausicaa Nisati, contralto; Matteo Pigato, alto; Luca Della Casa, Mamo Lombardi, Roberto Rilievi, tenor; Marco Bordini, Guglielmo Buonsanti*, Dario Pettenon, bass (* solo)
Nicola Barbagli, Federica Inzoli, oboe; Annamaria Barbaglia, bassoon; Gianfranco Ricci, Ulrike Slowik, Yayoi Masuda, Jody Livo, Rossella Borsoni, Sara Meloni, Gemma Longoni, Jeremiei Chigioni, violin; Jamiang Santi, Zeno Scattolin, Massimo Percivaldi, viola; Nicola Brovelli, Anna Camporini, cello; Carlo Sgarro, double bass; Davide Pozzi, organ


In the first half of the 18th century, Dresden was one of the main centres of music in the German-speaking world, and even in Europe at large. The chapel had some of the best performing musicians in its ranks, some of whom came also to prominence as composers. One of them was the Bohemian-born Jan Dismas Zelenka, who played the double bass in the orchestra. He also was responsible for the composition of music for the Catholic liturgy, especially when the Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen, suffered from illness. From 1719 to Heinichen's death in 1729, Zelenka acted as his substitute, and he continued the composition of sacred music when Johann Adolf Hasse was appointed Heinichen's successor in 1730.

Zelenka has left a large corpus of sacred music, in which masses take an important place. He wrote twenty of such works, the first in 1711, and the last in 1741, the Missa Omnium Sanctorum, which is the subject of the second disc reviewed here. Zelenka's masses have fared rather well on disc, but unfortunately it is mostly his latest masses which are regularly performed and recorded. The earlier masses have received much less attention, and therefore the release of a recording of his Missa Sancti Josephi is of great importance. The manuscript of this work has been severely damaged during the bombing of Dresden in February 1745. Wolfgang Horn, who also wrote the liner-notes to the recording under the direction of Frieder Bernius, was able to restore the score and edited it for the Carus Verlag. This means that this mass is now available for performance across the world, and one has to hope that it will find its way to choirs outside Germany.

Zelenka's masses are different in the number of sections: some comprise all five sections (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei), but others consist of only Kyrie and Gloria (a so-called missa brevis) and there are also some masses which omit the Credo. That is also the case with the Missa Sancti Josephi, which was probably written for St Joseph's Day on 19 March 1732 and was performed on the name day of the Saxon princess Maria Josepha. The scoring is for four voices (soli and tutti), with an additional bass in a section of the Gloria (Et in terra pax), and a large orchestra of two transverse flutes, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, two violins, two violas, double bass and basso continuo. Like many masses of the time - including Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in b minor - it is a sequence of sections for tutti and for one or more solo voices. The solo sections are sometimes clearly separated from the tutti, such as 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' (Gloria) for soprano, but are mostly intertwined with the tutti episodes. That is the case with the Kyrie: Kyrie I includes short solo interventions of soprano and alto. The Christe is for choir, and so is the very short Kyrie II. The solo passages are often for quartet, but there is also a duet of alto and tenor and a trio of soprano, alto and bass. In "Et in terra pax" (Gloria), the word "pax" (peace) is singled out through homophony and a general pause. In 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' (Gloria) the word "suscipe" (receive [our prayer]) is emphased through repetition. In the Benedictus the text is illustrated through ascending figures. For the Dona nobis pacem, Zelenka returns to the first Kyrie.

In addition, Bernius selected two of Zelenka's psalm settings. De profundis (Psalm 129/130) dates from 1724, when Zelenka performed it in memory of his recently deceased father. In the catalogue of Zelenka's works it is ranked among the 'Offices for the dead': instead of a doxology, the psalm ends with the words from the Introit of the Requiem: "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine". The setting of the opening verse is a real masterstroke. It is scored for three basses, trombones and strings. They emphasize the words "De profundis" ("out of the depths"), and the rising figures in all three vocal parts on the words "clamavi ad te Domine" ("have I cried unto thee, O Lord) is of great effect and makes a lasting impression. The trombones continue to play a major role in this work. The third section expresses the hope in the Lord; the two sections are divided among tenor and alto, with an obbligato part for oboe. Both the second and he last section open with a short passage for bass solo, who sings in plainchant.

Plainchant also plays its part in In exitu Israel, a setting of Psalm 113 (114): in the opening section the sopranos sing the plainchant melody as cantus firmus, whereas the other voices sing the text of the Psalm in a fast tempo and without any repetition. With less than five minutes, it is a very concise setting of a rather long text. The second section includes passages for solo voices, and the doxology opens with a trio for alto, tenor and bass.

Frieder Bernius has recorded several of Zelenka's late masses, and these recordings belong to the best in the composer's discography. This latest recording is another winner: Bernius has a very good feeling for the character of Zelenka's music. Counterpoint takes a central place in his oeuvre, and this aspect takes profit from the transparency of the Kammerchor Stuttgart. Bernius has attracted four fine soloists, who are a perfect match for choir and orchestra. Although they don't participate in the tutti, Bernius manages to fully integrate the solo episodes into the musical fabric. In some sections, solo passages are performed by members of the choir. The only issue is that the trills of Julia Lezhneva are a bit harsh, which I have noted before. Otherwise her singing leaves nothing to be desired.

Ruben Jais turned to Zelenka's last mass, which is available in other recordings. From that angle I would have preferred a different choice. A number of Zelenka's masses are not available on disc as yet. That said, this mass is popular among performers for a reason. It is one of the masterworks of the German Baroque, as are other works by Zelenka, who is often rightly called 'the Bohemian Bach'.

The Kyrie of the Missa Omnium Sanctorum is split into three sections: Kyrie I and II are tutti settings, the latter in the form of a fugue, whereas the Christe is an aria for tenor. The Gloria comprises six sections, the latter four are two pairs: 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' and 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' respectively. The former is for choir and orchestra - the choral episodes are interrupted by short instrumental interventions - and introduces an aria for alto which reflects the galant style. The latter pair is entirely for choir and orchestra, the second being another fugue. The opening section, 'Gloria in excelsis Deo', is for tutti with various episodes for solo voices. The second section, 'Qui tollis peccata mundi', is an aria for soprano.
The Credo has no formal sections; it again includes some passages for solo voices. The generally vivid character is interrupted on the text about Jesus being crucified and buried; repeated figures in the strings depict the hammering of the nails into the Cross. It is followed by a strongly contrasting setting of the words referring to his resurrection. In the closing episode the word "mortuorum" is set to a slow tempo, with marked dissonants.
The Sanctus is for tutti again, followed by the Benedictus in which soprano and alto sing a slow-moving melody over a vivid display from the strings. The 'Osanna' is another fugue. The Agnus Dei starts with a tutti section, followed by a solo episode for bass, and at the words 'Dona nobis pacem' Zelenka returns to the material from the Kyrie II.

The performance is pretty good, although not entirely satisfying. Choir and orchestra do a fine job. In this recording the soloists do participate in the tutti. In the passages for solo voices, the singers don't always blend that well, due to the vibrato of Filippo Mineccia and Lukas Zeman, which also damages their solos; in the case of Mineccia the 'Quoniam II' (Gloria). Cyril Auvity and in particular Carlotta Colombo are much better; I especially like the latter's voice and way of singing.

If you don't have a recording of this mass, this performance is well worth considering. However, Bernius (Sony, 2001) and Viktora (Nibiru, 2011) are to be preferred.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Julia Lezhneva
Tilman Lichdi
Jonathan Sells
Daniel Taylor
Kammerchor Stuttgart

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