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Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679 - 1745): "Sacred Music"

Grace Davidson, soprano; James Bowman, alto; Benjamin Hulett, tenor; Simon Whiteley, bass
Fiori Musicali Choir and Orchestra, Members of His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
Dir: Penelope Rapson

rec: March 4 - 6, 2007, Adderbury (Oxfordshire), St Mary's Church
Metronome - MET CD 1082 ( 2007) (66'16")

Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae (ZWV 53): Lamentatio pro Die Veneris Sancto; Miserere in c minor (ZWV 57); Requiem in c minor (attr) (ZWV 45)

Jan Dismas Zelenka is considered one of the most interesting and original composers of his time. Although he was highly appreciated by his peers, like Johann Sebastian Bach, most of his music was out of step with the taste of his time. This was one of the things which made his life rather tragic.

Zelenka was of Bohemian origin, born in a village near Prague. As so often with composers of that time he received his first music lessons from his father. Somewhere around 1710 he went to Dresden, where he entered the court chapel as a violone player. Soon he started to compose religious music, and between 1716 and 1719 he broadened his horizon with travels to Italy and Austria. In Vienna he was a pupil of Johann Josef Fux, and it seems quite possible that it was he who influenced him in regard to the use of polyphony.

The future looked bright for Zelenka when he returned to Dresden. In 1720 the opera closed which led to the royal chapel being the main source of musical entertainment. In addition the Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen, was of poor health, and Zelenka often had to replace him. When Heinichen died in 1729 Zelenka acted as his successor but was never officially appointed as such. And when he was granted the title of Kirchen-Compositeur in 1735 he didn't get a rise in salary, as he certainly had hoped. This fate reflected the lack of appreciation from the court, which is probably the result of Zelenka's style of composing being out of touch with the then prevalent fashion.

Zelenka's somewhat awkward position in regard to the taste of the time is reflected by one of the compositions performed on this disc. The Miserere in c minor is basically written in the 'learned' style which Johann Sebastian Bach also preferred. In fact Zelenka here makes use of much older music: a recercare by Frescobaldi from his Fiori Musicali of 1635. Zelenka's composition was received negatively. A diary says: "Mr. Zelenka performed a Miserere of excessive length". It is probably not the actual time the performance took that caused this comment but rather its old-fashioned style. For a performance in the following year Zelenka added an aria for soprano which was written in modern 'galant' style. As a result this piece is a bit inconsistent.

The main work on this disc is the Requiem in c minor, one of several settings of the Requiem by Zelenka. That is, if Zelenka is indeed the composer, which is the subject of debate. The instrumentation of the Dies irae is a little different from that of the remaining sections, and some scholars believe that at least parts of the work could have been written by someone else. The scoring is modest, with 4 solo voices, 4-part choir, strings and bc, with three additional trombones, which are used in the first and last section (Lacrimosa) of the Dies Irae. The overall character of the work is reflective, and there is little sign of the threat other settings of the Requiem contain. Just like the soprano aria in the Miserere the 'Tuba mirum' is rather galant in style, and written for soprano with strings and a pizzicato bass.

Assuming the Requiem - or at least a part of it - is indeed written by Zelenka these two works give a fairly good idea about his particular idiom, which is comparable to nobody else's, and also the problematic relationship with his time. Unfortunately the performance doesn't give a very fair idea about the quality of Zelenka's music. The singing of the choir and the playing of the orchestra are rather bland and uninspired, despite some nice contributions from the soloists, who are on the whole satisfying. Stronger dynamic contrasts in the tutti passages had been a great improvement. Even in his most introverted moments Zelenka's music is more exciting than this performance suggests.

The addition of one section from Zelenka's Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae is rather unsatisfying. A performance of, for instance, his setting of Psalm 130 (De profundis), which Zelenka wrote in remenbrance of his father, had been much more appropriate. But as far as the performance is concerned it is the most satisfying part of this disc. James Bowman gives a fine performance, and the instrumental parts are also played well.

As far as I know there are no other period instrument recordings of this Requiem, which makes this disc welcome. But that seems to me the only reason to recommend it, as musically speaking the performances are largely disappointing.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Fiori Musicali

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