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Jan Dismas ZELENKA & Johann Adolf HASSE: "Sacred Music for Dresden Cathedral"

Accademia Barocca Lucernensis
Dir: Javier Ulises Illán

rec: Nov 2018, Boswil (CH), Alte Kirche
Pan Classics - PC 10402 (© 2019) (51'57")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Hasse, Miserere
Scores Zelenka

Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Confitebor tibi in F; Miserere in c minor (version Dresden); Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745): Confitebor tibi in c minor (ZWV 71); Miserere in c minor (ZWV 57)

Gunhild Alsvik*, Marianna Knoblauch, Eva Maria Soler Boix*, soprano; Susanne Andres, Désirée Mori, contralto; Alberto Miguélez Rouco, alto*; Remy Burnens*, Raphaël Bortolotti, Christopher Wattam, tenor; Alexandre Beuchat*, Jonas Atwood, Álvaro Etcheverry, bass [* soli]
Bettina Simon, Bénédicte Wodey, oboe; Lathika Vithanage, Natalie Carducci, Rahel Wittling, Lukas Hamberger, Marta Ramírez, Paula Pérez, Elena Abbati, violin; Matthias Jäggi, Sara Gómez Yunta, viola; Carla Rovirosa, cello; Elisabeth Forster Büttner, violone; Simon Linné, lute; Andreas Westermann, organ

For several centuries the court of the Electors of Saxony in Dresden was one of the centres of culture and music in Germany. It experienced its heydays under the rule of Friedrich August I, nicknamed 'the Strong' (1670-1733), and his son Friedrich August II (1696-1763). Musically it was under the spell of the Italian style, especially since the latter had visited Italy as part of his Grand Tour. In his retinue was the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, who was later to become the chapel's concertmaster. He became acquainted with two of the main composers for his own instrument, Antonio Vivaldi and Tomaso Albinoni, who gave him some of their compositions. Frederick August heard cantatas by the German composer Johann David Heinichen, who had travelled to Italy to broaden his musical horizon, and developed a truly Italian style. The result of this acquaintance was his engagement as Hofkapellmeister. The present disc includes music by two other composers who played a key role at the Dresden court.

The first is Jan Dismas Zelenka, who played the double bass in the court orchestra and also contributed to the sacred music for the Catholic chapel. As in the last years of his life Heinichen was often unable to fulfill his duties because of illness, Zelenka acted as his substitute. Therefore he may have hoped to be appointed his successor, when Heinichen died in 1729. However, it was Johann Adolf Hasse, who took that position in 1730. Although he was appointed Kapellmeister, his activities were mostly confined to the composition and performance of operas. This apparently was the main reason that he got the job, as Zelenka had never composed an opera. The latter continued to write sacred music. Only incidentally sacred works by Hasse were performed in Dresden.

The present disc brings settings of the same texts by both composers together, which is quite interesting, as this demonstrates the stylistic changes which took place in the second quarter of the 18th century. The galant idiom, which emphasized the importance of melody, gradually supplanted a long tradition in which counterpoint was the foundation of music. Zelenka was a representative of the latter, and it is not without a reason that he is often considered the Catholic opposite number of Johann Sebastian Bach. Hasse, on the other hand, was one of the main representatives of the galant style. The booklet quotes the musicologist Wolfgang Flor, who states, with regard to Hasse's setting of the Miserere: "Hasse's music does not seek to cause horror and shock, but rather points to the consolation promised to the person pleading for mercy. The music does not stage a sermon on punishment; its beauty strives to seize the listener and lead her to prayer." This seems a pretty good characterisation of the style of Hasse.

If we compare Hasse's setting with Zelenka's, the differences are quite clear. The latter starts with an extended setting of the first verse of this psalm, which is dominated by chords in the strings in a very agitated rhythm, which are relentlessly repeated. The amount of dissonances in this section is quite unusual at the time. Next the text of the whole psalm is sung in a strict polyphonic style. It is based on an organ ricercar by Girolamo Frescobaldi, from his Fiori Musicali of 1635. It is likely this was the main reason that this Miserere was received negatively. A contemporary 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. This is the third movement, the first half of the doxology. This part is then set again for the tutti, and this is followed by the second half of the doxology. Then Zelenka returns to the opening verse. It is not a repetition of the first section, although elements from it are reused.

Hasse composed a setting of this penitential psalm for the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice. As this institution only accepted girls, all the parts - tutti and soli - were scored for female voices (SSAA). For Dresden he adapted this setting in c minor for a 'normal' SATB scoring. It is a typical product of the galant style. Sometimes one feels a clash between the text and the music, for instance in the short solo for the bass, 'Tibi soli peccavi'. It is rather odd to hear a truly operatic aria on a text like this: "Against thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified in thy saying, and clear when thou art judge". The 'Gloria Patri' is a solo for alto, and ends with a cadenza on "Sancto". There are certainly moments of true expression, though; for instance the solo sections in 'Ecce enim in iniquitatibus', first for soprano and alto and then for alto and tenor.

Confitebor tibi Domine is one of the Psalms that are part of Vespers. Zelenka's oeuvre includes several settings of this text; here we get a setting for bass solo and orchestra. The opening phrase is repeated several times, as a kind of refrain. This procedure was often applied in such works, in order to create a coherent structure. In the second section the bass is joined by an obbligato violin. Hasse's setting is shorter and scored for solo voices, tutti and orchestra. The work opens with a short solo for alto.

The programme performed here is quite interesting for bringing together two of the main representatives of the 'old' and the 'new' style in Germany. Obviously, there is no strict watershed between them, as we have seen: Zelenka did some concessions to the new galant fashion, and in Hasse we find some traces of the old style. Even so, this disc is a perfect demonstration of the change in musical fashion at the time. The short playing time is the only real disappointment about this disc. There was plenty of space for some more. Fortunately, the performances give no reason to complain. The soloists are part of the vocal ensemble, which guarantees a strong amount of stylistic coherence. I have little but praise for their contributions in the solo episodes. All five have very fine voices. My only slight reservation concerns Alexandre Beuchat. I like his voice and I appreciate his performance of Zelenka's Confitebor tibi Domine, but he has been educated in the field of (19th-century) opera and that shows. There are some traces of the way singers perform in operas by the likes of Rossini. I felt that he had to curb his natural voice, which seems pretty big. The cadenza towards the end is a mistake, in my opinion.

This is the first time I heard this vocal and instrumental ensemble which was founded in 2014. I am impressed by its quality and this debut disc is a very fine one. I hope to hear more from them in the years to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Accademia Barocca Lucernensis

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