Jan Dismas Zelenka is considered one of the most interesting and
original composers of his time. Although he was highly appreciated
by his peers, like Johann Sebastian Bach, most of his music was
out of step with the taste of his time. This was one of the things
which made his life rather tragic.
was of Bohemian origin, born in a village near Prague. As so
often with composers of that time he received his first music
lessons from his father. Somewhere around 1710 he went to Dresden,
where he entered the court chapel as a violone player. Soon
he started to compose religious music, and between 1716 and
1719 broadened his horizons with travels to Italy and Austria.
In Vienna he was a pupil of Johann Josef Fux, and it seems quite
possible that it was he who influenced him in regard to the
use of polyphony.
future looked bright for Zelenka when he returned to Dresden.
In 1720 the opera closed which led to the royal chapel being
the main source of musical entertainment. In addition the Kapellmeister,
Johann David Heinichen, was of poor health, and Zelenka often
had to replace him. When Heinichen died in 1729 Zelenka acted
as his successor but was never officially appointed as such.
And when he was granted the title of 'Kirchen-Compositeur' in
1735 he was denied the pay-rise he had pinned his hopes on.
This fate reflected the lack of appreciation from the court,
which is probably the result of Zelenka's style of composing
being out of touch with the then prevalent fashion.
somewhat awkward position in regard to the taste of the time
is reflected by one of the compositions performed on this disc.
The Miserere in c minor is basically written in the 'learned'
style which Johann Sebastian Bach also preferred. In fact Zelenka
here makes use of much older music: a ricercare by Frescobaldi
from his 'Fiori Musicali' of 1635. Zelenka's composition was
received negatively. A 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. As a result this piece is a bit inconsistent.
main work on this disc is the Requiem in c minor, one of several
settings of the Requiem by Zelenka. That is, if Zelenka is indeed
the composer, which is the subject of debate. The instrumentation
of the Dies irae is a little different from that of the remaining
sections, and some scholars believe that at least parts of the
work could have been written by someone else. The scoring is
modest, with four solo voices, four-part choir, strings and
bc, with three additional trombones, which are used in the first
and last section (Lacrimosa) of the Dies Irae. The overall character
of the work is reflective, and there is little sign of the threat
other settings of the Requiem contain. Just like the soprano
aria in the Miserere the 'Tuba mirum' is rather galant in style,
and written for soprano with strings and a pizzicato bass.
the Requiem - or at least a part of it - is indeed written by
Zelenka these two works give a fairly good idea about his particular
idiom, which is comparable to nobody else's, and also the problematic
relationship with his time. Unfortunately the performance doesn't
give a very fair idea about the quality of Zelenka's music.
The singing of the choir and the playing of the orchestra are
rather bland and uninspired, despite some nice contributions
from the soloists, who are on the whole satisfying. Stronger
dynamic contrasts in the tutti passages had been a great improvement.
Even in his most introverted moments Zelenka's music is more
exciting than this performance suggests.
addition of one section from Zelenka's Lamentations of Jeremiah
is rather unsatisfying. A performance of, for instance, his
setting of Psalm 130 (De profundis), which Zelenka wrote in
remembrance of his father, had been much more appropriate. But
as far as the performance is concerned it is the most satisfying
part of this disc. James Bowman gives a fine performance, and
the instrumental parts are also played well.
far as I know there are no other period instrument recordings
of this Requiem, which makes this disc welcome. But that seems
to me the only reason to recommend it, as musically speaking the
performances are largely disappointing.
Johan van Veen