The first time I listened to this recording, I fear my ears were clogged with preconceptions. I thought it sounded to brash and operatic; I suppose I was expecting a melancholy, meditative, contemplative oratorio, something more like one of the Bach motets or 'passion' cantatas, and also expecting more of Zelenka's strange and wonderful chromaticism. This is one time when I'm glad I waited before essaying a review. I've listened to the whole piece again, with the text in front of me, and I'm flabbergasted by how much I missed on first impression. Of all Zelenka's works, Gesu al Calvario IS the most operatic, the most clearly an Italian opera-at-the-altar (the original meaning of 'oratorio'), and the most musically extravagant, with opulent orchestral resources along with five soloists and chorus.
The scenario of Gesu al Calvario is distinctive; rather than the typical 'Last Words' libretto based on Scriptures, this Italian libretto depicts a conversation of the Three Marys with St. John and Jesus - thus the five soloists - before the crucifixion, which is announced by the chorus at the end of the first section (CD 1). In the second section, shared recitativos and duets predominate, as the four mourners lament the tragic scene. These five-voice recitativos are extremely poignant as well as musically complex, with striking orchestral accompaniment rather than dry continuo. In the same vein, most of the arias throughout the oratorio are framed by orchestral 'preludes' and almost symphonic 'postludes.' One might fell that the orchestra is itself the chorus of mourners, while in fact the chorus of voices is restricted to two brief declamations of astonishment. The most affective and memorable music takes the form of an 8-minute duet between Mary Magdalene (soprano ILarissa Malikowa) and Mary Cleofas (contralto Lena Norin), with astonishing filagree decoration by the woodwinds - two oboes, two bassoons, and a chalumeau. Zelenka's writing for bassoon is extremely virtuosic and expressive. In this piece, the chalumeau (an early clarinet, with a larger reed, three or fewer keys, and a very mellow timbre) proves its worth as a vocalising instrument, an almost-human singer among the horns. This duet is preceded and followed by the multi-character recitativos, the second of which introduces the 13-minute aria 'Che fiero martire', sung by Mary the Virgin (soprano Ingrid Schmithüsen), one of the boldest and most musically expansive arias in the baroque repertoire. The whole oratorio seems to me, upon careful listening, to be magnificently structured for dramatic impact, with two extended arias -- one by the Virgin, one by Jesus -- preceeding the crucifixion, and then two sublime expressions of 'veneration' -- the duet and Mary's finale aria -- following.
The other two soloists in this performance are alto David Cordier as Gesu and alto Kai Wessel as San Giovanni. Wessel carries the largest share of recitativo, replacing the traditional 'narrator/evangelist' of such oratorios, and he sings his role with emotive, dramatic intensity. My apologies to the previous reviewer, George Peabody, an eloquent advocate of counter-tenor voices and a fine judge of musical merit, but I have to disagree with his critique of Wessel's performance. It may be true that he sacrifices sheer beauty of timbre at times, in favor of dramatic affect, but I think the choice is justified in the context of this operatic mis-en-scene. David Cordier's one aria, as Gesu, is more rhetorically restrained and 'singerly', but that's as it should be. The three Marys are all as passionately operatic as Wessel. Indeed, the stylistic coherence of this performers, including the soloists and the instruments, is chiefly what impressed me upon my second listening. My respect goes to conductor Hermann Max.
The current listed price for this 2-CD recording is about four times what I paid just a month ago. Some comparative shopping may be justified, but I really think every serious fan of Baroque music will want to hear it. If you are enamored of JS Bach (the Thuringian Zelenka) or of the English Handel, you'll find "Gesu al Calvario" a worthy match for their best work.