As you read this, I invite you to listen to the beautiful Et resurrexit episode from the Credo of Missa Dei Patris by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) with its delightful rhythmic, harmonic and melodic complexities. It’s this intricate compositional finesse, exploring so many subtle possibilities, that distinguishes the music of this Bohemian Baroque master. Just rereleased by Brilliant Classics, this two CD set can be purchased for around $13; and it should be without hesitation if you do not already own the original release on Berlin Classics.
Born in a small town near Prague, Zelenka worked in Dresden and Vienna. His output is largely sacred music – masses, requiems, psalms and hymns. Handed the hard luck of living contemporaneously with Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann, Zelenka’s work has only recently begun to earn the recognition it deserves. The growing interest in his music during modern times began as recently as the 1960’s and ’70’s. Today, more than half of Zelenka’s extant works have been recorded.
Missa Dei Patris ZWV19 was written in 1740, close to the end of Zelenka’s career. Among his contemporaries, his musical language is closest to Bach’s, but as implied earlier, it can in some ways be even more complex. Zelenka is most highly regarded for his innovative harmonies with their chromatic nuances, but we can also marvel at his contrapuntal virtuosity, use of irregular rhythmic designs, and his explicitly marked and finely gradated dynamic spectrum. All of this comes at the cost of his music being exceptionally difficult to perform.
However, there is no need for concern about the quality of the performances on these CDs. Virtuoso trumpeter and baroque music specialist Ludwig Güttler who celebrated his 70th birthday in 2013 leads his Virtuosi Saxoniae with a splendid cast of singers that includes Peter Schreier, Olaf Bar and René Jacobs. The recordings from 1986 and 1994 sound wonderful. As a bonus, on the second CD we get to hear the artistry of Mr. Güttler playing the corni da caccia in over an hour of sacred pieces and instrumental capriccios. You can listen to one of the capriccios on offer in the video below. That’s enough; this set is recommended with unbridled enthusiasm!
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) is one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of Baroque music. Very little is known of his early years, where he studied and who taught him. Born in a village to the south of Prague, he later travelled to Dresden where he joined the court of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August I. His position at the court was a lowly one, but he nonetheless composed many works there and his output of church music was particularly prolific.
Zelenka was an astonishingly original and forward-looking composer, and his late Masses such as the Missa Dei Patris are a real departure from what we might see as ‘typical’ Baroque choral music, showing the influence of Italian opera and elements of the emerging style galant. Written for small forces but nevertheless conceived on a large scale, the Missa Dei Patris is full of beautiful melodies and profoundly expressive choral writing, and characterised by a unique blend of melancholy and ecstatic fervour. The second disc in this set includes three of Zelenka’s virtuosic and formally innovative Capriccios, and two of the Psalm settings that he composed for Vesper services at the Dresden court.
The works are heard here in definitive performances featuring renowned singers such as René Jacobs, Peter Schreier and Olaf Bär and the Virtuosi Saxoniae — an ensemble comprising some of the finest musicians from the Dresden Staatskapelle — under the baton of their founder, Ludwig Güttler.
Jan Dismas Zelenka, composer
Zelenka’s pieces are characterized by very daring compositional structure, with a highly spirited harmonic invention and perfection of the art of counterpoint. His works are often virtuosic and difficult to perform, but always fresh and surprising, with sudden turns of harmony, being always a challenge for their interpreters. In particular, his writing for bass instruments is far more demanding than that of other composers of his era, notably the “utopian” (as Heinz Holliger describes them) demands of the oboe scores in his trio sonatas.
Ludwig Guttler, conductor
Ludwig Güttler is an internationally known German virtuoso on the Baroque trumpet, the piccolo trumpet and the corno da caccia. As a conductor, he founded several ensembles including the chamber orchestra Virtuosi Saxoniae.
Performers: René Jacobs, countertenor; Olaf Bar, bariton; Peter Schreier, tenor
During the 1986 Dresden Music Festival the debut of the chamber orchestra Virtuosi Saxoniae attracted special attention. The ensemble went on to win the acclaim of audiences at home and abroad fully living up to the promise it had shown.
Thuringischer Akademischer Singkreis