Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) occupies an uncomfortable place in music history: He is often relegated to the sidelines when discussing the music of his better-known contemporaries and has the distinction of being compared unfavorably to Johann Sebastian Bach. Zelenka’s chamber music, including the sonatas for two oboes, bassoon, and basso continuo, are among his more familiar and often-recorded works – quirky and demanding, and sometimes a bit long-winded. Yet they reveal a composer with a fine grasp of counterpoint (he studied with Fux in Vienna between 1716 and 1719) and a unique sense of melody influenced by the folk music of his native Bohemia. From 1710 until his death thirty-five years later, Zelenka served the Saxon court in Dresden. From 1720 on, he composed a large body of sacred music for the Catholic worship services of the Electors of Saxony.
There have been a number of recordings released over the past 20 or so years, mainly coming out of Germany, featuring Zelenka’s sacred music. However, Zelenka fans have a new and impassioned advocate in organist and conductor Adam Viktora and his superb Prague Baroque Soloists and Ensemble Inégal. Viktora has already released recordings of two of Zelenka’s large-scale dramatic works, the serenata ‘Il Diamante’ and the oratorio ‘Il Serpente di bronzo,’ as well as another Mass and Litany album on the Prague-based Nibiru label, which has released a number of premiere recordings of music by Zelenka and other Czech composers.
Missa Sancti Josephi (ZWV 14)
Zelenka’s Missa Sancti Josephi was written in 1731 or 1732 to commemorate the name-day of Maria Josepha, the wife of Augustus, heir to the Saxon throne, who would become Elector in 1733. His father, Augustus I ‘the Strong,’ converted to Catholicism in order to become King of Poland in 1697. The court orchestra in Dresden was one of the finest in Europe, and Zelenka joined it in 1710 as a violone player. Between 1720 and 1729, he composed sacred music alongside the Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen. After Heinichen’s death in 1729, the search for a new Kapellmeister drew applicants from far and wide, helped by the reputation of the court orchestra. It was as an application for this post that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his Mass in B minor. However, Bach was unsuccessful and the post went to Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783,) who was in Dresden by 1731 and whose familiarity with Italian opera (he worked in Naples and studied with A. Scarlatti) had a profound influence on the compositional style of Zelenka.
This mass calls for the largest orchestral forces of any of Zelenka’s works. In addition to strings and continuo, it calls for two trumpets and horns, timpani, and paired oboes and flutes – the only one of Zelenka’s masses to use flutes in the orchestra in addition to their role as paired obbligato instruments in selected solo arias. The Prague Baroque Soloists are a joy to hear. The strings are crisp and stylish with near-flawless intonation. They can turn on a dime from languid and ethereal to brash and athletic. The trumpets and timpani are appropriately festive, with razor sharp articulations. A real treat is the paired horns – a Bohemian baroque specialty – handled with precision and polish by Erwin Wierenga and Miroslav Rovensky. Zelenka’s treatment of wind instruments is one of the strongest elements of his orchestrations. Oboes, trumpets, and especially those horns jump out of the orchestral texture as in a 3-D movie, leaping or insinuating their way through the rest of the ensemble with spine-tingling clarity. Equally impressive moments of clarity come from the lower strings, especially the violas and the principal cello, played by Libor Mašek.
Hasse’s Italian influence can be heard in numerous places, including Zelenka’s use of unison ritornelli (as in the opening of Vivaldi’s famous Gloria) for several movements, including the opening of this mass’ Gloria in excelsis. The gently rolling ‘Et in terra pax’ is also eerily similar to Vivaldi in style – an operatic convention invoking slumber and calm. Zelenka reinforces the duality of heaven and earth in this movement by expanding the choir to five parts, including a second bass part. Pure Zelenka is the twisting chromaticism of the fugue in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi,’ reminiscent of his strikingly anguished Responsoria for Holy Saturday – another must-listen for fans of Baroque music – rooted in the stile antico of Palestrina, but pushing the limits of 18th century harmony to its farthest bounds.
Other than these moments of angst, this is a festive mass; even the opening Kyrie Eleison sparkles while supplicating. The chorus of 17 voices blends beautifully, with crystal-clear diction and the agility necessary to navigate Zelenka’s vocal writing – including the rapid-fire ‘Gloria in excelsis’ and an astonishing fugal subject on ‘cum Sancto Spiritu’ at the end of the Gloria. This sounds more like the opening motive of a Bolognese trumpet sonata than any choral piece. The tuning, with the exception of a few very brief soprano glitches, is excellent. Zelenka places some serious demands on his singers and for the most part, the soloists (who also sing in the choir) are up to the challenge.
Particularly memorable is Hana Blažíková, a soprano with a voice of pure silver; supple, rich, and able to handle the most demanding passage-work – yes, that is a high d at the beginning of ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ – with ease. Her rendition of the Benedictus qui venit, accompanied by flautist Martina Bernaskova, is simply stunning, as are her long, sensuous vocal lines in ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus.’ Tenor Jaroslav Březina’s bright and agile voice shone in ‘Domine, Fili unigenite.’ Countertenor Jakob Huppmann’s sonorous blend with the three female altos in his section was very pleasing, but he never fully stepped out of his choral colours during his solos, and was noticeably overshadowed in his duets with the powerfully expressive Blažíková.
Litaniae Xaverianae (ZWV 155)
Zelenka’s Litaniae Xaverianae, ZWV 155 is one of three settings of the Litany of St. Francis Xavier, who, with St. Ignatius of Loyola, was one of the founders of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were, and still are, a missionary and educational order, and Zelenka himself was educated in a Jesuit school in Prague. Mainly Protestant Saxony, and Dresden itself, was considered a Jesuit mission; it is no wonder that so many Xavieran figural litanies were composed for the exceptional orchestra at the Dresden Hofkapelle.
This litany is a more somber, introspective piece that contrasts well with the festive mass on this album. Set in the dark key of C minor, and scored for a much smaller orchestra of strings, two oboes, and continuo, Zelenka must work with an extremely long text, addressing the saint from various angles as healer, servant, intercessor, etc. He divides the piece into twelve movements, including a very picturesque soprano aria on ‘Fidelis imitator’, which includes trumpet calls (Tuba resonans Sancti Spiritus…). Gabriela Eibenová’s voice is sweet and graceful and resonant enough for the task, although her lowest register tends to get lost in the orchestra’s texture. The gut-wrenching choral chromatics of the brief chorus ‘Salus aegrotorum’ (health of the ill) showcase the composer’s powerful control of harmony. Baritone Marián Krejčík shines in the Italian-style rage aria ‘Fugator daemonum’, a strong voice with firm command of Zelenka’s passagework, although the aria demanded more from his lowest notes than he could deliver.
As in the mass, the strength of Zelenka’s writing for individual instruments is highlighted in moments of pure beauty, such as the obbligato cello line at the beginning of ‘Pauperrime Xaveri’, a level of expressivity that, unfortunately, eclipses the singing of countertenor Huppmann. Mr. Huppmann does get his moment in the sun in the following movement, singing a sweet trio with the solo oboe and violin as part of an extended set of petitions in which each soloist has a role.
The orchestra and choir work almost seamlessly together under the direction of Mr. Viktora, with only minor exceptions, most notably a few choral entrances in the ‘In quo uno omnium’ section. The sound of the instruments is clear and focused, with important lines cutting through the texture with dramatic results. The choral sound is more diffuse, set at stereo left and right, and with the exception of Mr. Březina and the remarkable Ms. Blažíková, is not quite present enough in the mix to stand out over the crispness of the instruments. All in all, this is a significant recording by a very talented and impressive group of musicians. The works of Zelenka, Heinichen, and Hasse written for the orchestra and choir of the Dresden Hofkapelle help place Bach’s Mass in B minor in a rich context, at the intersection of Catholic and Lutheran, Eastern and Central European musical traditions.