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Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679 - 1745): Masses & Motets

[I] Missa Omnium Sanctorum, Christe eleison, Barbara dira effera!
Gabriela Eibenová, sopranoa; Kai Wessel, altob; Jan Kobow, tenorc; Tomás Králd, Marián Krejcíke, bass
Ensemble Inégal, Prague Baroque Soloists
Dir: Adam Viktora
rec: June 29 - July 2, 2011, Prague, [Church of the Virgin Mary under the Chain]
Nibiru - 1542231 (© 2011) (68'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Cz; lyrics (except Mass) - translations: E/D/F/Cz
Cover; Track-list & liner-notes

Barbara dira effera! (ZWV 164)b; Christe eleison (ZWV 29)b; Missa Omnium Sanctorum (ZWV 21)abcde

[II] Gaude laetare, Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis
Gabriela Eibenová, sopranoa; Carlos Mena, altob; Václav Cízekc, Makoto Sakuradad, tenor; Roman Hoza, baritonee; Lisandro Abadief, Marián Krejcíkg, bass
Ensemble Inégal, Prague Baroque Soloists
Dir: Adam Viktora
rec: Sept 25 - 28, 2012, Prague, [Salvator's Church]
Nibiru - 01572231 (© 2012) (66'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Cz; lyrics (motet) - translations: E/D/F/Cz
Cover; Track-list & liner-notes
Score Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis; Score Gaude laetare

Gaude laetare (ZWV 168)d; Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis (ZWV 17)abcdefg

Zelenka is one of the composers of the baroque era whose works bear a very personal stamp. If you hear one of his compositions it is easy to recognize him. These discs bears witness to that: the solo motets Barbara dira effera! and Gaude laetare are hardly known - they are actually recorded for the very first time on these discs - but if you would listen to them without knowing who wrote them you would immediately think of Zelenka.

All the music on these discs dates from the later stages in Zelenka's life, and was composed after 1730. He was a highly respected composer and played an important role at the court in Dresden. In the 1720s the then Kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen often fell ill, and his duties were then taken over by Zelenka. No wonder he expected to be appointed as his successor when Heinichen died in 1729. But it was Johann Adolf Hasse who got the job. In the next years until his death Zelenka continued to write sacred music but his compositions were not that often performed during the liturgy.

Whether his latest masses which he composed in the early 1740s were ever performed is impossible to say. Zelenka had planned to compose a set of Missae ultimae, but it has been left incomplete. The Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis is the first of the series, the Missa Omnium Sanctorum the last. The titles of the masses don't refer to a particular feast: the Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis is dated 1 November 1736, whereas the Feast of the Holy Trinity is on the Sunday after Pentecost. The Missa Omnium Sanctorum bears the date 3 February 1741, whereas All Saints' Day is on 1 November.

Both masses are 'number' settings, meaning that the masses are divided into clearly defined sections. Stylistically they reflect the stilo misto which was common at the time, mixing tutti sections in the stile antico with arias for solo voices in a more modern fashion, often in a galant idiom. Ironically Zelenka's latest masses show the influence of his great rival Hasse. It is probably his way of showing that he was able to compose in the then popular style, and didn't just stick to the idiom of the past.

Let us have a look at these two masses in more detail. In the Missa Omnium Sanctorum the Kyrie is divided into three sections; Kyrie I and II are for the tutti, whereas the Christe eleison is an aria for alto. The Gloria comprises five sections; the opening 'Gloria in excelsis' includes passages for three solo voices: soprano, alto and tenor. The next section, 'Qui tollis peccata mundi', contains some strongly contrasting subsections which are all of great expression, and include various dissonant passages. In the middle the orchestra provides a series of rather nervous chords, whereas this section ends with a quiet episode with heavy dissonances. 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' is an aria for soprano with an obbligato part for transverse flute. The orchestral parts include returning metrical shifts. As expected the Gloria ends with a fugue on 'Cum sancto spiritu'.
In the Credo Zelenka creates a strong contrast between the sections 'Et incarnatus est' and 'Et resurrexit'. 'Et unam sanctam' which ends with a reference to eternal life and the resurrection of the dead is very intimate, scored for three solo voices: soprano, alto and bass. The Credo also ends with a fugue.
The Benedictus is another soprano aria; this time the orchestra includes parts for two transverse flutes playing unisono. The first Agnus Dei is an exquisite duo for tenor and bass; the vocal episodes alternate with dialogues for oboe and chalumeau. The mass ends with another fugue on the text 'Dona nobis pacem'.

The Kyrie of the Missa Omnium Sanctorum is also 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 - which 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, which 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 - here performed by the respective sections from the choir - 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.

Both discs include additional material.
The second disc has a setting of the 'Christe eleison' which has been preserved as an independent piece in the form of an aria for alto, strings and bc. It could have been written as part of one of Zelenka's other planned masses or as an alternative to the respective sections in one of his completed masses. It seems to date from the early 1740s.

Lastly, the motets which I already referred to. Gaude, laetare is on the same disc as the Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis. Unlike the mass this motet was written for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, and was performed on Trinity Sunday 1731, apparently after Vespers, but the exact role of the motet is hard to establish. It begins with a dacapo aria of an operatic character, which is followed by a recitative. The motet ends with an Alleluja setting. In the opening aria "resonate" (resound) is illustrated in the music. Makoto Sakurada delivers a good and differentiated performance with a good articulation.

On the second disc we find Barbara, dira effera!, a Motetto pro Resurrectionis Domini, which has the same structure as the previous motet. The opening aria has the character of an operatic rage aria, which calls the Jewish people "barbarous, cruel and savage" because of their persecution of Jesus. However, "[the] lion of the tribe of Judah has vanquished", as the recitative says. It is followed attacca by the closing aria, a florid "Alleluja" setting. This piece also appears on the disc of Alex Potter and the Capriccio Barockorchester which I reviewed recently. Kai Wessel is more dramatic in his interpretation than Potter, also due to the faster tempo and his effective use of his chest register. The recitative is also more dramatic, but I don't want to make a choice between these two performances. I rate both highly.

Choir and orchestra deliver brilliant and exciting performances. The many twists and turns which are so characteristic of Zelenka's music are perfectly conveyed. The soloists on both discs do a very fine job. Some of them may be not that well-known yet, but they deserve to be. Most of them are part of the Czech early music scene, and these discs - as some others which have been released in recent years - bear witness to the spectecular rise in quality of performances of early music in the former Czechoslovakia.

However, the main thing is that Zelenka's music is brilliantly exposed here. I hope that many more recordings of his music by these artists will follow.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Inégal


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