musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Lotti - Zelenka - Bach"

Tanya Aspelmeiera, Heike Heilmannb, soprano; Marion Eckstein, contraltoc; Bernhard Landauer, altod; Julian Podger, tenore; Marek Rzepka, bassf
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor, Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble
Dir: Thomas Hengelbrock

rec: Sept 26 - 29, 2008, Müllheim (Baden), Martinskirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697526842 (© 2009) (76'02")

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12)cef; Antonio LOTTI (1667-1740): Missa a tre coriabcdf; Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745): Miserere in c minor (ZWV 57)a

Bach, Zelenka and Lotti on one disc - that seems a little odd. Bach and Zelenka knew each other as they lived and worked not that far away from each other, in Leipzig and Dresden respectively. But what about Lotti?

Antonio Lotti made his career in Venice, but was born in Hanover where his father was Kapellmeister. In Venice he became a pupil of Legrenzi. He started out as an alto singer and an organist in San Marco. In 1693 he wrote his first opera, and his growing reputation as an opera composer brought him the invitation to write an opera for Dresden. Here he lived and worked from 1717 to 1719. He wasn't only an opera composer, though. When he came to Dresden he took with him some religious works he had written in Venice, and in Dresden he composed some more.

Zelenka, who for many years worked in the court orchestra in Dresden as double-bass player, copied a number of works by Lotti. Among them was the Missa Sapientiae; a copy of this mass has also been found in Bach's library. It is quite possible that it was through Zelenka that Bach became acquainted with Lotti's oeuvre.

But there are not only historical reasons to bring together these composers on one disc. There are also some stylistic similarities between the three compositions which Thomas Hengelbrock has recorded. The main feature they have in common is that they contain traditional and modern elements. They link up with the traditional stile antico in that they include polyphonic sections. And in all three pieces dissonances and chromaticism are used for reasons of text expression. At the same time they contain elements which reflect contemporary fashion.

Zelenka's setting of the penitential Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus, is a perfect example of the mixture of old and new. It 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.

The Balthasar-Neumann-Choir and -Ensemble give good performances, in which the text expression comes off very well. It is disappointing, though, that the dense polyphonic texture of the second section results in the words being practically inaudible. More attention should have been given to a clear delivery of the text. Tanya Aspelmeier gives a good account of the solo part.

The cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen is one of Bach's most famous cantatas. It inspired Franz Listz to one of his best-known organ works. It seems Bach also liked it: he composed the cantata in 1714 in Weimar, and performed it again in 1724 in Leipzig. The tenor is expressed in the accompanied recitative, a quotation from the Bible (Acts of the Apostles): "We must pass through great sadness that we come into God's kingdom".

The cantata begins with an expressive sinfonia, marked 'adagio assai'. The opening chorus has a dacapo form, and the A section is a chaconne over a chromatic bass which is repeated 12 times. It is here that the tradition is coming to the fore, as well as in the scoring with two independent viola parts. The B section doesn't contain independent instrumental parts: the instruments are supposed to play colla parte with the voices - another feature of the stile antico.

Much more in line with the fashion of the time is the inclusion of a dacapo aria, 'Kreuz und Kronen sind verbunden', scored for alto, with an obbligato part for the oboe. In the tenor aria 'Seid getrost', the slide trumpet plays the melody of the chorale 'Jesu, meine Freude'. The German Bach scholar Alfred Dürr suggests Bach could have had the last stanza in mind: "Begone, mournful spirits, for the master of my joys, Jesus, is now arriving".

The tutti parts receive good performances from the choir and the orchestra. None of Bach’s expressive devices passes unnoticed. The rhythm of the bass aria 'Ich folge Christo nach' is under-exposed, though. The contralto Marion Eckstein sings her part beautifully, and so does the tenor Julian Podger, although in his aria I would have liked stronger contrast between the A and B sections. The bass Marek Rzepka is a bit bland, and there is a slight tremolo in his voice which I have noticed in other recordings in which he participated. The obbligato parts are well executed by Emma Black (oboe) and Paolo Bacchin (slide trumpet).

Old and new elements are also present in Antonio Lotti's Missa a tre cori, written for three groups, as the title indicates. This mass belongs to the genre of the missa brevis, consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only. The stile antico is particularly present in the Kyrie and returns in some sections of the Gloria.

The first Kyrie is very reminiscent of the opening of Zelenka's Miserere, in particular harmonically. Even rhythmically there is some similarity, although Lotti's rhythms are less agitated. In the Christe eleison the name 'Christe' is singled out. The second Kyrie contrasts the descending line and an ascending figure on the words "eleison" in the upper voices.

The Gloria begins with a dancing movement in jubilant mood, in which the trumpet participates. The next section, 'Et in terra pax', takes more than five minutes and reverts to the same kind of chords in the strings and strong dissonances we heard in the first Kyrie. The 'Gratias agimus' also begins with great harmonic tension which is then released in the second half. In 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' Lotti again makes use of fiery chords and sharp dissonances.

The most modern sections are 'Domine Deus' and 'Qui sedes'. The former is a wonderful trio for soprano, violin and basso continuo. 'Qui sedes' is scored for alto and obbligato oboe, with the lower strings and basso continuo. In 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' the trumpet returns. Through homophony and long notes the name 'Jesu Christe' is singled out. The mass ends with a fugal section on the text 'Cum Sancto Spiritu'.

This is probably the very first recording of this mass, and it is a beautiful and highly expressive work. It is easy to understand that Zelenka and Bach were interested in Lotti's music, and in particular Zelenka seems to have been influenced by Lotti. The qualities of Lotti's mass setting are fully explored by choir and orchestra, with excellent contributions of the vocal and instrumental soloists. Only Bernard Landauer is a little disappointing in 'Qui sedes'.

Unearthing unknown masterworks is something of a speciality for Thomas Hengelbrock. Both Lotti's Missa Sapientiae and the Missa a tre cori are masterpieces - evidence that Lotti's oeuvre is well worth further appraisal. Bach's cantata is available in a number of other recordings. The performance on this disc is good, but not the main reason to commend this CD.

It is both Lotti's mass and the Miserere by Zelenka which make this disc especially attractive. The Zelenka has been recorded before, and some time ago I reviewed a recording by Penelope Rapson. But Hengelbrock's interpretation is simply superior, and in fact it is hard to imagine a more intense interpretation of Zelenka's Miserere.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

CD Reviews