Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745)
CD 1
Officium defunctorium ZWV 47 (1733) [61:26]
CD 2
Requiem in D ZWV 46 (1733) [40:04]
Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704/Václav Luks
rec. 6-11 June 2010, Studio Dominova, Prague. DDD
ACCENT ACC 24244 [61:26 + 40:04]

The music on this fine two disc set was written during the period of mourning declared when the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland Friederich August I, ‘Augustus the Strong’ died in 1733. An entire year of protocols and ceremonies were organised by the state, and had to embrace and satisfy the needs of both the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Jan Dismas Zelenka had become acting Kapellmeister at the Dresden court after the death of David Heinichen in 1729, and was therefore responsible for writing both the Officium defunctorium or Office of the Dead and the Requiem as part of the Catholic ceremonies.

The booklet notes deal with the history and use of these pieces in great depth and provide full texts in Latin, and translated into English, French and German. A great deal of work has also gone into scholarly reconstruction of the scores, much of the content of which was incomplete, or had to be gathered from disparate sources. More important to our present concerns is the quality of the recording and performance, which to my ears are both superlatively excellent.

The substantial Officium defunctorium is an extended ‘Funeral Theatre’ which opens with a truly spectacular Invitatorium, with dark and dramatic progressions and suspensions arranged into gritty and rhythmic textures which relent into the more lyrical Psalmus. This opening is on the scale of that for a Passion by J.S. Bach, and equally impressive. The main body of the work is divided into three Nocturni, each in turn divided into three Lessons and Responses, none of which titles goes any way towards describing the quality and intensity of Zelenka’s settings. Given a full and rich orchestral accompaniment with strings, winds and organ plus theorbo continuo, the elegantly moving vocal solos and heavenly choral textures float above and integrate with a full and sonorous harmonic and contrapuntal backing. Everything has a feel of sumptuous and well-financed elaborateness, through the performances and recording are at the same time clean and transparent. The playing is as close to the original conception of the work as might be consider possible, but is thankfully free of exaggerated mannerisms. The voices project a natural vibrato, and dynamics and phrasing guided by the logical nature and feel of the music – it all has an essentially ‘correct’ feel, and with no quirky distractions one can allow the expressive movements pass like a procession of powerfully emotional devotional vignettes. If you have a chance to sample, try something like track 9, the memento mei Domine from Nocturno II. Those harmonies at 0:55 and onwards stopped me in my tracks and made me go weak at the knees - Zelenka’s original intention I’m sure, and still with plenty of stirring impact today. The Officium defunctorium is just full of moments like this.

Disc 2 has a remarkable Requiem which follows the traditional liturgical pattern, but is again lavishly set with the addition of a brass section and timpani to add further bite to the orchestral sound. Zelenka makes full use of the idioms of his day, but is quite happy to set Gregorian plainchant against state of the art harmonies and dramatic orchestration, with eloquent chromatic touches to illustrate the most moving passages of text. The Christe eleison has an almost jazz feel with its obbligato chalumeau, a clarinet-like instrument which teases the ear in the same range as the female vocal solo like a baroque Benny Goodman. The following Kyrie eleison is also almost disrespectfully joyous sounding, and energetic trumpets are allowed a full contribution at the Tuba mirum. Zelenka doesn’t go in for a great deal of operatic repetition of the words, repeating the lines at the ends of some phrases where the sequences of musical logic demand such treatment. He does allow plenty of expressive relationships and a certain amount of word-painting, the combination of such effects illustrating the meaning if the text in a sometimes almost graphic fashion.

This is a Requiem full of unexpected things, and certainly not a piece filled with downbeat misery. Zelenka’s message is one which has plenty of defiant spirit, but which is also capable of expressing the profoundest sense of grief and lamentation. The piece is foremost a devotional expression in the service of the liturgical text, set in what must have been the most dramatic terms possible for the times. Bravura displays of virtuosity from the orchestra are also a feature in the arpeggios of the Pleni sunt coeli – revisited in the Hosanna in excelsis: Philip Glass in paratus. Such moments of lively animation keep the imagination fizzing as the work progresses. The remarkable sound of the chalumeau is also an unforgettable feature of the work, an unearthly wordless voice which shadows the soloists at moments of emotional intensity. The ending of the work is as quiet and enigmatic as Zelenka’s own shadowy figure, a character of whom no portrait survives. 40 minutes may not seem long for an entire CD, but this Requiem gives enough intensity and substance to knock many grander works of later eras for six, and easily stands alone as a masterpiece of the period.

There are a few recordings of the Requiem around, but with only a few movements from the Officium defunctorium currently visible on a programme of sacred music from The King’s Consort on the Hyperion label there seems to be very little competition for this release. Everything about it is top notch, from the presentation and documentation to the recording and performance. Full compliments go to all concerned and not least to Zelenka, whose stock must rise much-fold with the experience of these works. This is definitely one of my 2011 recordings of the year.

Dominy Clements

Drop dead gorgeousness.