A composer of Catholic liturgical music in a Lutheran society, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) was fighting an uphill battle for popularity even during his own lifetime. After his death, his music all but disappeared from the repertoire, and still remains firmly on the fringes of concert programming. One ensemble, however, is doing more than any to change this.
For over 20 years, Czech conductor Václav Luks and his superb Collegium 1704 choir and orchestra have been turning out eloquent recordings that celebrate the intricate counterpoint and bold harmonic gestures of the composer JS Bach so admired. Their latest is particularly interesting: a world premiere recording of the Missa Divi Zaveri, a major 1729 work thus far silenced by the poor condition (including lost parts) of its surviving manuscript. Now Luks himself has produced a complete edition, and the results are thrilling.
The Mass features the largest forces Zelenka ever composed for, including four trumpets, timpani, doubled flutes and oboes as well as strings, chorus and SATB soloists. The result is truly festal in scale, possibly an informal audition for the job of kapellmeister at Dresden that would eventually go to Hasse.
With no Credo, the centre of musical gravity shifts to the eight-movement Gloria. Luks’ chorus brings pointillist precision to the framing movements, never obscuring the scurrying of strings below. Zelenka’s coloratura is carefully shaped even at extremes of register, gloriously blotted by thick interjections of brass. Loveliest of all is the Domine Deus II – an Italianate duet for soprano and alto soloists (Hana Blažíková and Lucile Richardot) complete with flirtatious obbligato flutes.
Zelenka’s melodic invention is at its liveliest in the Kyrie, and – in an elegant piece of structural unity – many themes find echo later in the Mass. A rapt Agnus Dei for solo alto and chorus brings the work to a sober close.
Zelenka’s Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio makes a natural companion-piece – a rare musical setting of the traditionally spoken litanies of St. Francis Xavier. The descriptive texts invite a programmatic response; the Tuba Resonans prompts some brilliant, Handelian writing for obbligato trumpets, bursting irrepressibly in on the lyrical lines of a quartet of soloists, while Auxiliator Naufrgantium provides a sudden and violent musical tempest.
Idiomatic and stylish, these interpretations make a persuasive case for their national composer. That Zelenka is more than an also-ran is beyond question by the end of this exhilarating disc.