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Zelenka: Officium Defunctorum (Zwv 47), Requiem in D (Zwv 46)
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on 21 February 2011
Jan Dismas Zelenka (JDZ) was overlooked during his career by most people except colleagues like Bach and Telemann. He could not call himself a composer until the last 10 years of his life - and even then with reservations. Today he is about to be recognized as the most important late baroque composer next to Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. The music of this first complete recording of Zwv 47 «Officium defunctorum» & Zwv 46 «Requiem» gives an idea about why.

In February 1733 Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, died in Warshaw. A clergyman heard his confession: «When the [priest] told him, that he must remember, that he was going to give an account to the Almighty of his Actions, both as Man & King, he answered, that as a man his whole Life had been a continual Sin, which he heartily repented of; but as a King, he had nothing to reproach himself of, having never had other views than the good of the Country.» (In: Stockigt (2000) p. 197). It's not known if the King had his wife Christiane Eberhardine (see images) in mind when confessing his sins, but it was a public secret that their marriage had been a hollow formality ever since Augustus had converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to assume the Polish Crown. The fact that they produced only one legitimate heir among the King's 267 (!) illegitimate children with mistresses (nicknamed «the Strong» partly due to this) should suffice as explanation. Outraged by her husband's pragmatism, Queen Christane refused to give up Protestantism, and went into local self-exile until her death. Consequently she became a true stoic hero in the eyes of their subjects in Saxony, and Augustus' court (including Zelenka) in Dresden remained a Catholic island in the midst of a vast ocean of Protestantism that included Bach's Leipzig. Bach's composition of his well-known «Trauerode» (Bwv 198), the music of which was later reused in the otherwise lost S. Mark Passion, was commisioned for a Memorial Service in Leipzig following Christane's death in September 1727, and bears witness to the town's deep admiration for her.
While the Lutheran Bach composed music for the Queen, the commission of the King's funeral music finally went to the Catholic Zelenka. The rites took place in Dresden's Court Church (see uploaded image) 15-19 April 1733, where Augustus's heart had been brought in the meantime. Visually as well as musically, this castrum doloris- ceremony became one of the most spectacular theatres of death of the entire German baroque.

According to notes in Zelenka's autograph score the music was written in great haste. However, no sign of haste is traceable in JDZ's project for the ceremonies. Its «Officium defunctorum» (Zwv 47) consists of an initial invitatory Psalm (Ps. 95), followed by nine Lessons that are excerpts from the Old Testament's Book of Job, in alternation with nine Responsory Psalms mainly inspired by the New Testament (CD 1: 61,5 min). A solemn «Requiem» Mass (Zwv 46) ends the office (CD 2: 40 min). Although the textual-musical structure might seem unrecognizeable at first, it is actually made as a parallel to the liturgical music during Holy Week: The Lessons of the three «Nocturn»s (i.e. the hours chosen for the Readings) in the Office of the Dead (Officium defunctorum) thus correspond to the more familiar Tenebrae Readings of Jeremiah's Laments on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday respectively, and their «tono»/music. First-hand accounts from the occasion mention this connection explicitly (my comments in brackets): «The funeral ceremonies were performed for the soul of Augustus with a triduum (prayer period lasting three days). (...) Matins was sung in the choir, priests giving antiphonal Responsories in the body of the chapel. The Italian musicians mournfully sang the lessons of the first Nocturn in tono Lamentationum Jeremiae (thus sung in the manner of the Jeremiah Lessons and Responsories for the Easter triduum of Holy Week) and the other readings were continued by the subdeacon, deacon, and priest.» (In: Stockigt (2000) pp. 198-199). Modern performances of Jeremiah Laments and Responsories ignore that these two text types are supposed to alternate likewise, with specific Responsorial Psalms answering each canonical Lesson also during Holy Week (Christ's funeral & resurrection). Listening to this new reference recording by Collegium 1704 is the best way to understand how corresponding music earlier has suffered from being taken out of its intended musical, dramatical and liturgical permance context, thus running the risk of seeming repetitive. Within the funeral liturgy Job's Lessons ask existential questions about suffering and death's presence in the world, while the Responses admit a possibility of salvation as well. Because the original organization is respected, the full dramatic potential of both Job's literary masterpiece and Zelenka's in my opinion equally masteful musical interpretation is brought out, with good help from Collegium 1704's expressive performances. Despite being non-narrative, this story about (a) man's suffering and death is in its unique way a worthy counterpart to Bach's dramas about Christ's Passion. But while the Passions end with the death and burial of Jesus, JDZ's version of the Christian existential drama continues with its (potentially) happy ending. His final Requiem corresponds to Easter Sunday, something which explains a more optimistic and rich scoring here. Theologically, the musical development from an initial restrained polyphony to a final colorful operatic approach has a precise meaning: If Augustus had suffered and died in imitation of Christ, he would also be resurrected in imitation of Him on Judgement Day. Augustus' soul should be guaranteed salvation if the power of the composer's musical invocation is taken into account.

I am no musicologist, so I'll leave the details of that part of the review to more competent people. Some brief remarks will suffice: JDZ's project for the Royal Memorial Service shows considerable variation in style, from simple Gregorian chant in the last six Lessons and in strategic positions elsewhere, to the intricate yet refined polyphony in the nine Respones and to the final Mass, where everything culminates in a skilful interplay involving all the musical powers the then-legendary Dresden Court could mobilize. Somewhere between these stylistic extremes stand the compositions for the first three Lessons with unforgettably colorful obbligato woodwind instruments, rhetorically appropriate for emotionally charged situations. Especially the warm timbre of the rarely used chalumeu (Christian Leitherer) in the first Lesson - also used for the mentioned reason in the solo arias throughout the Requiem - accentuates the textual content perfectly. Instrumental passages that depict for example the stormy ocean most convincingly, in delicate dialogue with the soloist and the choir, invite us to participate in the monumental 10 min Invitatorium that starts everything. One would expect the varied performance described above to appear idiosyncratic and fragmented taken as a whole, but on the contrary it is a good example of baroque unity in diversity, and reveals just another side of Zelenka's genius, as an architect of large-scale musical structures. Simultaneously the funeral rites' composition is JDZ in a nutshell, representative of the different styles he knew. When this Czech working in Dresden sometimes is referred to as the Bohemian Bach, several ideas are involved, first and foremost his mastery of counterpoint and polyphony from the 16th and 17th centuries, at a level only comparable to Johann Sebastian himself. This feature distinguishes both geniuses' musical library from their contemporaries'. An example that encapsulates JDZ's genius in the older style might be the delivery of the phrase «Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio» from the 7th Responsory. In addition his arias and choruses reveal a talent similar to Bach's for incorporating the latest operatic and instrumental developments into his work, with a striking melodic inventiveness. Distinctive is also an ability to reach profound spiritual depths by means of the various styles used. Yet, despite all similarities, somehow the comparison works only in theory. JDZ's eccentric, exotic rythms and harmonies and surprising changes of direction, together with an unusual mix of ecstasy, melancholy and a superhuman visionary power, confirm an artistic individuality so strong that even inexperienced listeners easily will recognize him among thousand other composers, including Bach.

Because there is so much going on musically, it is fortunate that this first complete recording by Collegium 1704/ Vaclav Luks is excellent. Both choruses and instrumentalists, as well as most soloists, are outstanding, especially Blazikova and Cukrova. A minor reservation I have is that some among the secondary singers in this studio recording from 2010 seem slightly less prepared than those used during the very first performance, broadcasted by Mezzo in 2009, which was even better in certain (not all) details. I have learnt to expect the best from Collegium 1704. Therefore I point out details that one would normally pass over. My last reservation regards the recording technique. Accent has provided the whole 2 CD package, intelligently put together, visually attractive and with interesting illustrations. There is a generous 55-page booklet containing relevant and competent comments only. The original Latin is translated into English, French and German. Nevertheless, the recorded sound is not 100%. Occasionally the complex, beautiful tones of the instruments and choir, intended to interact in a dialogue on equal terms with the solo voices, appear a bit distant and reach my ears with some difficulty. However, those details fade in the light of the big picture that shows a milestone on the way to the greatest rediscovery since Bach, Monteverdi and Vivaldi.

Although the «Officium defunctorum/ Requiem» is representative if you buy only one CD, several other works are indispensable. My narrow and certainly not exhaustive selection of three ensembles stands out by meeting the following criteria: Each has recorded systematically over many years, and with consistently outstanding results. «Missa votiva» is the list's only overlap. With one exception - the «Missa omnium sanctorum»/ «Missa ultimarum sexta» by Bernius - all CDs below are available, on Amazon (but not always well distributed - others must be used until they change their mind):
* Frieder Bernius/ Barockorchester Stuttgart:
1)«Missa dei fili» and «Litaniae lauretanae `salus infirmorum'»
2)«Missa omnium sanctorum» / «Missa ultimarum sexta» (deleted !!!)
3)«Missa dei patris» (Carus label: limited American distr. Check Amazon in uk/fr/de)
4)«Missa votiva» (Carus label: limited American distr. Check Amazon in uk/fr/de)
* Vaclav Luks/ Collegium 1704:
1)«Missa votiva»
2)«I penitenti al sepolchro del Redentore» (his last oratorio)
3)«Officium defunctorum» and «Requiem» (the CD reviewed here)
* Adam Victoria/ Ensemble Inegal (all Nibiru Publishers):
1)«Il serpente di bronzo» (his first oratorio, quite different from the last) (very limited distr.)
2)«Missa purificationis» and «Litaniae lauretanae `consolatrix afflictorum'» (very limited)
3)«Il Diamante» (large-scale wedding serenata) (very limited)
4)«Missa sancti Josephi» and «Litaniae Xavierianae» (very limited)
Ensemble Inegal's CDs on the small company Nibiru Publishers have a very limited distribution. Fortunately, availability problems are easily solved by listeners with a computer and a search engine...

NB! Is anyone interested in finding out more for example about the apparent contradiction between Zelenka's life and art hinted at in the introduction? Look for Janice B. Stockigt's impressive «Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)» monography - which I have quoted above - here on Amazon.
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VINE VOICEon 20 June 2012
I won't waste words here given the other lengthy review. These two pieces for the funeral rites in 1733 of Frederick Augustus "The Strong" Elector of Saxony and King of Poland are true undiscovered gems of Baroque music. Jan Dismas Zelenka is blessed indeed to have such wondrous champions of his music, bringing him into his deserved place alongside Handel, Vivaldi and J. S. Bach, in the form of Collegium 1704, Collegium Vocale 1704 and an outstanding set of soloists under the direction of Václav Luks.

Buy without hesitation, and then also Luks' & Collegium 1704's other superb recordings of Zelenka.

Note: it's worth comparing the price of the other listing Music for the Funeral Rites of Augustus the Strong which is the exact same product.
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