... with his quirky sense of instrumentation and his eccentric modulations, nobody else that is except Johann Sebastian Bach. If you've remained skeptical of the affinity between Bach and Zelenka, this CD should go a long way toward persuading you. It's not the language, obviously; these pieces by Zelenka are all in Latin. It's not the religious fervor; Zelenka was fervently Catholic. Two of the pieces recorded here are Marian devotions. The first and longest piece - Litaniae de Venerabili Sacramento - was composed in 1727 for a Corpus Christi procession which had to be held inside the Dresden court chapel to avoid antagonizing the Lutheran populace. What then? It's the bold multi-layered complexity of the music, the density of counterpoint, the fabulous obbligatos, all of which would be incoherent if attempted by a lesser master. "Venite exultemus magistro musicae."
Zelenka's reputation doesn't profit, however, from too much comparison with Bach. His oeuvre is much smaller and narrower. He wrote nothing to match Bach's works for harpsichord and organ, or for solo cello or violin, or Bach's concertos. At least, no such music by Zelenka has survived the obscurity that settled over him in his last years and after his death. Fan club boosters of Zelenka's music have reason to hate the name of Johann Adolf Hasse, the extremely popular composer of operas who snatched the prized position of Kapellmeister in Dresden that Zelenka had 'earned' by long service. The embittered Zelenka wrote very little thereafter for the last decade of his life. And yet... Hasse was also a great composer. "Quid est homo quia magnificas eum?"
The five pieces on this CD were all written in the half-decade before Zelenka's great disappointment. The 'Lectiones' and "Invitatorium' were written for the funeral of Augustus the Strong, Zelenka's patron, but it was the next Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus II, who cast Zelenka aside. "Ecce nunc in pulvere dormiam et si mane me quaesieris non subsistam."
This splendid music deserves a more consistent performance. Only portions of the recording really deserve five stars, but the music is so compelling that I can recommend it enthusiastically anyway. The instrumental work is excellent throughout, and that's the most exciting facet of Zelenka's music. The three male soloists - alto Robin Blaze, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Michael George - are likewise excellent. Soprano Carolyn Sampson, on the other hand, is barely adequate; her voice is not especially lovely, her rapid passages sound labored, and she consistently sings on the gravity side of A415. The Choir of the King's Consort is atrocious, a pitchless rumble; fortunately their role is minimal except in the Litaniae. "Hodie si vocem Zelenkae audieritis nolite obdurare corda vestra."
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