Although this music entered my collection at the same time as the original manuscript version of Leoš Janáček's Glagolitic Mass (mentioned in my last article), the music of this Baroque Czech composer couldn't possibly be more different.
Jan Dismas Zelenka here takes his first bow in my writing, with a recording devoted mainly to choral music for the Advent and Christmas season. Zelenka was a nearly exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frideric Handel, but his music (at least in this collection) treads a different path from those two great masters.
Zelenka's posthumous reputation has been one of the great beneficiaries of the age of the compact disc. The arrival of this form of musical storage device in the 1980s triggered a vast wave of recordings of little-known and unknown music, blasting hundreds of composers out of history books and off the shelves of archives to return into the realm of living music.
This process has uncovered some wonderful and beautiful masterpieces, and some relatively tedious clangers too, but Zelenka's music comes down firmly in the masterpiece category -- for my money, at any rate. Here is a distinctive and creative voice, presenting musical ideas with both skill and love.
The centrepiece of this Supraphon recording is a cantata mass for the Christmas season, the Missa Nativitatis Domini. The sources indicate that this mass was composed in haste in December of 1726, and it was most likely performed during the Christmas festival of that year.
It's rather curious that this puts it just a few brief months ahead of Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion. That proximity throws the differences between these two contemporaries into the starkest possible relief. Zelenka's music is bright, brisk, at times even jolly, filled to the brim with Italianate energy and sunshine. And yet, Zelenka's work also for the most part stands worlds away from the vocal acrobatics of Handel's Italian operas and cantatas. A closer reference point might be the choral works of Vivaldi.
And yet I can't help feeling that the sound world of Zelenka's music most strikes me as an anticipation of the classical style of Haydn. Over and over there are progressions and melodic turns of phrase which call to mind the works of that later master. The generally bright tone of most of the music also puts me in mind of the inveterately cheerful Haydn.
The Missa Nativitatis is scored for strings and continuo, with flutes, oboes, and bassoon, and with parts for a pair of brass instruments -- these are specified as clarini (high trumpets) in the manuscript source. The manuscript does not include the settings of the Sanctus, Benedictus, or Agnus Dei. All the later copies of the score include settings of these movements identical to those of the composer's Missa charitatis, which was composed a year or so later. In that mass, the instruments are a pair of horns. Subsequent copies of the Missa Nativitatis vary -- some specify clarini, while others call for the horns. These performers have chosen to retain the horns, for the valid reason that no other work of Zelenka's incorporating trumpets omits the timpani, as the Missa Nativitatis does.
The horns give a relatively mellow sound, forsaking the brilliance of the clarini for an appropriately pastoral tonal palette in keeping with the Christmas festival.
The Kyrie of the mass takes the entire tripartite text in a single movement, with the three statements overlapping each other throughout. The later pages of this movement are characterized by some florid writing for the horns which fits well with the general tone of the music but seems a little at odds with a text which is a prayer for divine mercy.
The Gloria and Credo are each subdivided into five distinct movements. Choral and solo movements alternate. While there are slower tempi and quieter music at such passages as the Qui tollis or the Crucifixus, these do not in any wise attain the mournful depths found in Bach's B Minor Mass. Both Gloria and Credo end with brilliant fugues.
The Sanctus verges on the monumental in chordal style, but is very brief. The Benedictus is a lovely, triple-time duet for soprano and alto, and the final Osanna is little more than a closing cadence. The Agnus Dei then brings the one movement really dominated by virtuoso vocal brilliance in the choral parts of the final fugue.
The recording includes three other choral works bracketing the mass. The disc opens with a Magnificat in C, with a lengthy first movement in the style of a concerto grosso. It's rooted in one of the traditional Gregorian chants used for this hymn. The choral ritornello recurs between and around the contrasting sections with smaller ensembles of instruments. This long main setting of the text is then balanced by a briefer fugal Amen, again much sunnier than the massive Amen fugue in Handel's Messiah. The overall tone of Zelenka's music in this work in particular calls to mind the Magnificat of the Italian composer Francesco Durante, formerly attributed incorrectly to Pergolesi.
There follows a briefer setting of the Christmas motet text O Magnum Mysterium, adapted from an earlier motet on a quite different text. This might explain the apparent disjunction between the awe-inspiring text and the rather more genial music.
The concluding work of the programme is the only surviving vocal work of Zelenka setting a Czech text: a solo motet composition on the text of Psalm 150 entitled Chvalte Boha Silného. This last of the psalms enumerates the different musical instruments which should be turned to the praise of God, and concludes with a stirring invocation: "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!"
This text gives Zelenka more scope that any of the other works on the disc for illustrative writing, not so much for the baritone soloist as for the various instruments -- many of which are turned to the task of imitating other instruments that are not represented in the orchestra. Zelenka's musical illustrations here are both engaging and fascinating.
The ensemble Musica Florea, consisting of a dozen singers and 18 instrumentalists, gives splendid performances of all this very fine music under the spirited direction of Marek Štryncl. The sound is resonant, but not overly so, suggesting fairly close miking of the performers in a church setting.
For anyone who enjoys Baroque vocal and choral music, this 2012 Supraphon recording will amply repay your interest.