Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745)
Missa Divi Xaverii, ZWV 12 (1729) [43:56]
Litaniae de Sancto Xaviero, ZWV 156 (1729) [27:05]
Collegium 1704 & Vocale/Václav Luks
rec. November 2015, St. Anne Church, Prague
ACCENT ACC24301 [71:28]
Jan Dismas Zelenka is a composer waiting to be fallen in love with – if only the half-way inclined listener gets a sufficient dose to hear of him. If the label “The Dresden Bach” helps get future Zelenka-lovers to the river and drink in deeply, then that label is worth it. Once drunk on Zelenka’s music, differentiation will come naturally, because he really is quite different from Bach. His is a much more fruity high-baroque, much more catholic—the music is less austere, less rigorous, more elaborate, sunnier, perfumed (with frankincense and flowers)—and perhaps a little more involved with the surface of the music than the deep thinking of sui-generis Bach.

Zelenkistas all over the world are being increasingly indulged with more (and better) recordings of this composer since the starting shot was given by a fine recording of the Trio Sonatas with the Camerata Bern, Heinz Holliger and friends in the 70s on Archiv. The process accrued speed when Holliger & Co. re-recorded these works for ECM in 1999. The vocal works have since gotten more attention, too, and the leading groups here are the Collegium 1704 under Václav Luks and the Ensemble Inégal.

This latest release from the former of these two excellent groups consists of two works honoring St. Francis Xavier (co-founder of the Jesuits) and they have everything ‘Zelenka’ about them: lavish, glorious, and grand with timpani, doubled woodwinds, and four trumpets or two horns, respectively. Those horns, if anything, are just a shade south of perfect but it matters little… it’s more ‘warmth’ than ‘wrongness’. If you know Richard Egarr’s Brandenburg Concerto recording – an absolute favorite of mine – that’s the minimal level of non-perfection we are talking about here. The Missa Divi Xaverii specifically is one of his most opulent works, even though it is technically a missa brevis (without the Credo), it’s still one of his longest, too, at roughly three quarters of an hour.

The Collegium 1704 under Václav Luks are such Zelenka-experts that they pull it off with panache – and yet they never are tempted just to go for sheer grandeur. There are more intimate and gentle moments in this grand mass than there are outbursts. Especially the finale – Dona nobis pacem – is jubiliant but contained. (The chorus numbers 17 singers.) Throughout they are aided by top-notch singers who deliver the goods. Prima inter pares is Hana Blažíková. When I recently heard her in Bach’s Magnificat with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium, I wrote:

“…the other soprano Hana Blažiková…, my goodness! […] It was a kind-of jaw-dropping, mesmerizing moment to hear her voice break out from stage. It’s like a steel beam protruding… strong and solid and yet it isn’t harsh nor piercing but has a nice, just ever so slightly softening coating on that instrument to add a good dash of pleasantness to the impressiveness.” (Bach at Home in Japan, Forbes.com)

Hana Blažiková doesn’t stick out as notably on this disc, but that’s because she blends in a little more, not because she is out of form. The qualities are right there: just listen to the superb quartet with alto Kamila Mazalová in the Domine Deus and two virtuosic flutes – an elaborate pastorella. Her alto-colleague Lucile Richardot’s contribution shouldn’t be ignored, either: she’s terrific, almost tenorish, in the Agnus Dei again. Tenor Václav Čížek and bass Stephan MacLeod show in the following Qui tollis duet that they are fit to be paired with their female colleagues, even if their considerable qualities might not have as characterful or have as uniquely beautiful a timbre.

If you’ve discovered Zelenka, you will find that all new Collegium Vocale or Ensemble Inégal releases are essential. But if you haven’t yet, and because Zelenka ensnares so easily, it almost doesn’t matter if you start with this disc or his Missa Canctissimae Trinitatis or the Missa Paschalis or…. Meanwhile, just the idea of how much Zelenka remains to be discovered makes me very happy, indeed!

Jens F. Laurson

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