Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679 - 1745)
Missa votiva in e minor (ZWV 18)
Joanne Lunn (soprano), Daniel Taylor (alto), Johannes Kaleschke (tenor), Thomas E. Bauer (bass)
Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. 7-9 July 2008, Evangelische Kirche of Reutlingen-Gönningen, Germany. DDD
CARUS 83.223 [69:15]

Jan Dismas Zelenka was one of the best composers of his time, whose works were highly appreciated by Johann Sebastian Bach. His life was however touched with tragedy. In 1710 or 1711 he was appointed as a double-bass player in the court orchestra in Dresden, but soon he also became active as a composer. In the dedication of his first mass to the Elector August the Strong he asked for permission to go to Italy and France to broaden his musical horizons; this request wasn't granted. The Kapellmeister at the time was Johann David Heinichen, who in the 1720s often fell ill, and whose duties had to be taken over by Zelenka. When Heinichen died in 1729 Zelenka hoped to be appointed as his successor. But his hopes were dashed when in 1733 Johann Adolf Hasse got the job instead.

It is not known for sure why Zelenka was passed over, but it seems likely that his style of composing was considered old-fashioned, whereas Hasse was more modern and would be a better fit with the fashion of the time. The fact that Bach admired his music is an indication of Zelenka's preference for a 'learned' style, in which traditional German counterpoint played an important role. Zelenka's many compositions, in particular his religious works, impressively show how well he mastered counterpoint and how he was able to merge the tradition with modern concertante elements. There are even some traces of the galant idiom in his oeuvre.

In the 1730s Zelenka continued to compose religious music but it wasn't often performed during services. The Missa votiva was the first of six masses which Zelenka aimed to compose; only four were actually written. It is likely that these masses were not written for liturgical performance but rather for personal reasons, probably comparable to Bach's last works, like the Kunst der Fuge and the Mass in B minor. At the beginning of the Missa votiva Zelenka wrote a motto: "Vota mea Domino reddam" (I will fulfill my vows to the Lord). A postscript on the last page of the score says, again in Latin: "Jan Dismas Zelenka composed this mass to the greater glory of God because of a vow, after he had regained his health with the help of God".

Zelenka's music is always good for a surprise or two, and the audience is often set on the wrong track. The opening section of this mass, Kyrie eleison, for instance, begins in a surprisingly jubilant mood, but then suddenly takes a sour turn with a descending passage which is to return time and again. This section is parodied in the closing "Dona nobis pacem". Also notable is the lamento character of "Et incarnatus est" in the Credo, prefiguring of the following "Crucifixus". In the first section of the Credo the intonation of the opening words, "Credo in unum Deum", is embedded in the overall texture, and repeated several times through all the voices, from soprano to bass. In the episode "Et iterum verturus est" (and he shall come again with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead) the flow of the music suddenly comes to a halt, and after a general pause moves on very slowly on the words "et mortuos" (and the dead). At the end the same happens on "mortuorum" ([and I look for the resurrection] of the dead).

It seems unlikely that Bach knew this particular mass, but he would certainly have appreciated the symmetrical structure of the Gloria. It is divided into seven sections, beginning and closing with two tutti episodes. Two solo arias, for soprano and bass respectively, embrace the central section, again for the tutti. This section, "Qui sedes", is split into two contrasting episodes: "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris", in a vivid rhythm, with a remarkable unisono passage, and "miserere nobis", which is full of dissonance and contains frequently repeated chords in the orchestral parts.

Several tutti sections have solo episodes; the tenor is only involved in these. The soprano has three solos: Christe eleison (Kyrie), Qui tollis peccata mundi (Gloria) and the Benedictus. Joanne Lunn sings them impressively, with excellent diction and a very precise delivery. Daniel Taylor gives a moving performance of "Et incarnatus est", and captures the Affekt of this episode perfectly. Thomas Bauer sings "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" (Gloria) alright, although he tends to go a little over the top, and uses a shade too much vibrato. That is also the case in his solo in "Et resurrexit".

The Stuttgart Chamber Choir is one of the best in the world, and that again shows in this recording. Consisting of eight sopranos, six altos, five tenors and five basses, it produces a beautiful, strong yet transparent sound, and the text is clearly audible. Zelenka's orchestral parts are always interesting, and the Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra performs them with flair and understanding.

Zelenka's music never disappoints, and I don't hesitate to label this mass a masterpiece. The performance displays this work in its full glory. Of all recordings of Zelenka's music this disc is one of the best.

Johan van Veen

Another masterpiece by Zelenka - the performance displays the Mass in its full glory