Classical CD Reviews

ZELENKA: Six Chamber Sonatas, Volume One = Crystal Records
ZELENKA: Volume Two: Sonatas 4, 5 & 6 – Crystal Records

Beautiful music and music-making. Original-instrument die-hards, beware; but the rest of us need not hesitate.

Published on February 7, 2013

ZELENKA: Six Chamber Sonatas, Volume One = Crystal Records</br>   ZELENKA: Volume Two: Sonatas 4, 5 & 6 – Crystal Records

ZELENKA: Six Chamber Sonatas, Volume One = JAN DISMAS ZELENKA:  Sonata One for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo; Sonata Two for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo; Sonata Three for Violin, Oboe, Bassoon, and Continuo; Sonata Three for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo  – Erin Hannigan and Kathryn Greenbank, oboe/ Kristin Van Cleve, v./ Benjamin Kamins, bassoon /Timothy Pitts, doublebass / Layton James, harpsichord – Crystal Records CD 821, 66:06 ****:

ZELENKA: Volume Two: Sonata Four for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo; Sonata Five for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo; Sonata Six for Two Oboes, Bassoon, and Continuo  – Erin Hannigan and Kathryn Greenbank, oboe /Benjamin Kamins, bassoon /Timothy Pitts, doublebass /Layton James, harpsichord – Crystal Records CD 822, 51:09 ****:

Jan Dismas Zelenka belonged to that long and distinguished roll call of Bohemian musicians that sounded throughout Europe from the sixteenth century down to the twentieth, leaving indelible, in the mind of the casual music lover, only the names of Smetana, Dvořák, and Janáček. But at one time names such as Benda, Mysliviček, Pichl, Rosetti, Vanhal, and Dussek were household words—if your household and household income were sufficiently large. However, an even crueler obscurity befell the works of Zelenka, an injustice that has waited until only fairly recently to be righted by musicians and recording companies, if not concert promoters.

As with his German contemporary Christoph Graupner, following his death Zelenka’s many compositions were more or less commandeered by nobility, in his case one Maria Josepha, Electress of Saxony, who jealously guarded the manuscripts despite clamorings for publication from admiring colleagues such as Telemann. As with Graupner, the rediscovery of Zelenka’s music was a long time coming, but since the critical floodgates opened in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Zelenka’s work has been even more fortunate; according to an article on Wikipedia (yes, I consult it too), about half of Zelenka’s output has been recorded, though I’d venture to say that considerably less than that is currently available on disc. Still, there are about twice as many Zelenka recordings as there are of Graupner’s music. But then musicians have a long way to go to work their way through the vast heap of Graupner’s works, including more than a thousand church cantatas alone! Zelenka’s extant output is considerably smaller—in the realm of instrumental music, comparatively miniscule. The six trio sonatas on the current Crystal CDs are the total of Zelenka’s chamber music output.

Zelenka studied with Johann Fux in Vienna, which probably accounts for his mastery of counterpoint, and worked as assistant to Kapellmeister Johann Heinichen at the royal court in Dresden. Perhaps from Heinichen he picked up other elements of his style, including his celebrated ability to write for winds, as well as his unusual harmonic and melodic propensities. Zelenka’s themes often go off on strange tangents that make them as intriguing to follow as one of those maze games, and his harmonic language is pretty daring compared to that of his contemporaries. In some ways, he seems to anticipate the music of the next generation, especially that of the equally unpredictable C. P. E. Bach, who always remembered his father’s regard for Zelenka’s talent.

All the hallmarks of Zelenka’s style are abundantly evident in these six trio sonatas: the long sinuous melodies, the astute use of fugue and double fugue, the off-beat harmonic language—and the absolutely virtuoso treatment of the wind instruments, with its “endless streams of 16th notes in bassoon and oboe parts.” Needless to say, besides being on your toes, it’s requisite that you have a virtuoso’s command of your instrument if you’re going to tackle Zelenka. Happily, that is certainly the case with oboists Erin Hannigan and Kathryn Greenbank and bassoonist Benjamin Kamins, who don’t exactly make this music sound easy but who certainly negotiate it with skill, still managing lovely sound production in the process.

Choice of competing performances on disc is limited, and in fact it seems that these Crystal discs are the only ones currently available that offer all six trio sonatas. One of the sonatas, No. 2 in G Minor, is available in a performance by members of Concentus Musicus Vienna (Teldec), and being done on original instruments, that’s a different affair altogether. The current performances are really modern-instrument versions with a vengeance, from the slightly (very slightly) romanticized treatment of Zelenka’s tender slow movements right down to the questionable use of a doublebass as continuo instrument, something Nikolaus Harnoncourt wouldn’t do for a million euros. Most listeners—me included—won’t be greatly disturbed by the practice, especially since these beautifully recorded discs give us the opportunity to hear some truly heavenly music. Recommended heartily, then (though with a caveat for die-hard original-instrument fanciers).

—Lee Passarella




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