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- Published on Amazon.com
Half of this CD is taken up by the immense Gloria from Jan Dismas Zelenka's Missa Dei Filii (Mass for the Son of God), ZWV 20. This might not be particularly astounding except that Zelenka never finished this second of his projected set of six missae ultimae (final masses).
He only completed the opening 7 1/2 minute Kyrie and the incredible 30+ minute Gloria that follows. Had Zelenka continued at this pace, the complete mass might well have been 1 1/2 hours long and given the Bach B minor mass a run for its money as the defining piece of late Baroque sacred music.
The mass opens with the chorus intoning "Kyrie eleison" in block chords supported by the propulsive thrust of the lower strings. Following an orchestral introduction, the "Christe eleison" is entrusted to the solo soprano who declaims these words with simple grace, interrupted occasionally by thorny commentary from the strings and oboes. As is typical, the Kyrie is a tripartite structure, and this movement ends with a reprise of the opening "Kyrie eleison."
The Gloria begins with an orchestral introduction that sets the forward moving sweep of the entire movement. What is especially impressive about the Gloria (and the Kyrie, for that matter) is that Zelenka is able to achieve such momentum with his typical orchestra -- modest in comparison with the forces for which Bach scored his B minor mass -- of strings, two oboes, bassoon, and continuo (organ and lute in this case).
The chorus and orchestra drive the Gloria forward from the opening "Gloria in excelsis deo" to the "Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te" with the soloists providing the occasional interlude to embellish upon the statements of the chorus. One particularly effective moment in this section occurs when Zelenka has the tenors and basses arise from the depths with "Propter magnam gloriam tuam" while the soprano and alto soloists sing "Gratias agimus tibi" above.
The extended "Qui tollis" that follows is another amazing piece of music. Like other sections of the Gloria, it begins with an orchestral introduction, an appropriately brooding one considering the words that follow. The soprano is then given a lovingly ornamented aria on "Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis" with a sighing orchestral accompaniment that leads into a bass aria on "Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram" and then a tenor and bass duet on the same words.
The chorus, propelled by the orchestra launches into the short "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis". This section is particularly striking as the lower strings rip out a chromatic bass line that anticipates Philip Glass by more than 200 years. After declaiming the "Quoniam" section, the alto soloist finally gets to show off with a busy aria on these same words that ends with a florid little cadenza.
Like all proper Glorias, this one ends with a fugue. The chorus broadly proclaims the closing "Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen." and then, with the full collaboration of the orchestra, launches into a propulsive fugue.
Listen carefully in this section to the oboe line. I first thought I was hearing a clarino trumpet part (though no such player is listed in the orchestra's roster) typical of those that appear in Bach's cantatas. I then remembered that many baroque composers used oboes as de facto trumpets, and a careful re-listening revealed that this busy clarino line is carried off with aplomb by wonderful woody, nasal-toned baroque oboes.
Zelenka makes this closing section unique by blending into it, before the final peroration of "in gloria Dei Patris. Amen," the orchestral theme and accompanying words "Laudamus te, benedicimus te..." that close the first section of the Gloria. The effect is brilliant, helping to link the two extremes of this long movement that ends succinctly with the chorus and orchestra coming together for the final "Amen." C major chord.
By the way, there's another piece of music on this disc, Hasse's C minor Miserere. As you might know, Hasse succeeded Heinichen as Kapellmeister at the Saxon court in Dresden, a position Zelenka (who ultimately had to settle for the title of Kirchen-compositeur -- church music composer) felt he deserved but never received. Hasse's C minor Miserere (he also wrote one in E minor) was initially written in 1730 for the girls of the Ospedale degli incurabili in Venice but later revised for use at the Dresden court church. This is a fine performance of the Miserere, especially the closing chorus "Sicut erat in principio."
This CD comes from the fine German Raum Klang label. The soloists are Heike Haliaschka (soprano), Kai Wessel (alto), Marcus Ullmann (tenor), and Frank Schiller (bass). The Dresdner Kammerchor and Barockorchester are conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann.
Needless to say, by giving this CD five stars, I have no qualms at all about these performances. The sound of the 20+ member chorus and period instrument orchestra is clear and well balanced. Rademann's conception of both works is first class, and I found more to like in the Hasse Miserere than I have in other performances of this same work to which I've listened.
It's especially fortunate that Raum Klang placed Hasse first on this CD. The Zelenka Missa Dei Filii is a masterpiece of such sweep and power that absorbing it as the first work on this CD would guarantee that the Hasse Miserere would never get a hearing! Thankfully, this is not the case, and you can be assured that this fine CD will provide a unique, potent, and enjoyable listening experience.
- Published on Amazon.com
Although I've known his music since the early 1990s, through a handful of recordings that entered my collection back then, it is only recently that I've really plunged into the choral music of Zelenka (1679-1745) - the main bulk of his output - and become aware of this composer's genius and originality, which makes him, in my mind, enter the handful of towering greats from the first half of the 18th century, together with Bach, Haendel, Vivaldi and Telemann.
But Zelenka has still a long way to go to be recognized as such by the performers, record companies and audience, as testified by the number of recordings available on CD of his great masterworks. The present Missa Dei Filii ZWV 20 is a good case in point. It belongs to Zelenka's ultimate trilogy of such masses, together with the Missa Dei Patris ZWV 19 and Missa Ognum Sanctorum ZWV 21, written in 1740/41. The composer intended to write six such ultimate masses (hence the subtitle of ZWV 21, "ultimum sexta", last of the six), but apparently never completed the three others. Even ZWV 20, unlike its two companions, is limited to the two first parts of the Ordinary (out of five), Kyrie and Gloria. Given that as such, it runs over 40 minutes, one is left to imagine what a mammoth work it would have been, had it been complete. Missa Dei Patris runs 70 with Kyrie & Gloria playing less than 30 minutes, so that gives a hint (ZWV 21 is more compact: 50 minutes total). Apparently those three works were not written with any specific performance in mind (no parts have been found, only conductor's manuscript score), just Zelenka laying down for posterity testimonies of his art, and they weren't played during his lifetime.
And all three are masterpieces of sweeping power and mind-numbing originality, evoking less the choral works of Zelenka's great contemporaries than pointing to the great masses of Haydn. ZWV 20 offers choral numbers of sweeping power (opening Kyrie, the extraordinary Gloria, track 12, almost 10 minutes of buoyant jubilation), including mighty fugues that surpass those of Bach maybe not in science, but in dramatic passion (concluding Cum Sancto Spiritu, track 18), formidable orchestral imagination that transcends the intrinsic limitations of an ensemble comprised only of strings, continuo and two oboes, and of which the highlight may be the agitated and "panting" accompaniment to the Qui Sedes ad dexteram patris, track 14, anticipating Gluck and Berlioz. Another originality of Zelenka is his use of the cyclical principle, with his final fugue ending with motivic elements from the Gloria. And finally, like Handel and Vivaldi, Zelenka has the knack for writing solo arias that grab your attention. And one at least of those arias offers a touch more: Qui tollis peccata mundi, track 5 starts and develops for five minutes as a classical aria for soprano, but then it becomes an aria for bass, soon seguing into a duet for tenor and bass - that's how free and unconstrained Zelenka is. But while those solo arias may evoke some of the great contemporaries of Zelenka, in his choral writing I can think of no one who wrote like that in the first half of the 18th century.
Yet this recording here, made in 1997 in Dresden, Zelenka's professional base, by period-instrument forces led by Hans-Christoph Rademann and published by the small label Raumklang, is, to the best of my knowledge, only the second recording of Missa Dei Filii, and to date, almost two decades later, none has been added to the catalog. I haven't found trace of any recording in the LP era, so the recording premiere (although it didn't boast being one), was the 1989 recording of Frieder Bernius on Deutsche leading the Canadian Tafelmusik baroque ensemble and his own Stuttgart Chamber Choir for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Zelenka: Missa Dei. The situation is the same with the two companions - only two recordings each on CD, although Missa Dei Patris was also graced with one at the end of the LP era, never reissued to CD (see my reviews of Zelenka: Missa Dei Patris and Musik aus der Dresdner Hofkirche: Missa Omnium Sanctorum).. In the meanwhile, record companies and performers have of course glutted the market with Masses in B, Messiahs and Glorias. Not that I mean to complain about that, but there would have been space for more versions of Zelenka's great masses.
The factor of relief is that Bernius' recording seemed outstanding - as much as you can assess the value of a performance without any comparison. So, if for any other reason, Rademann's recording is interesting for enabling one to compare. In fact, it is very similar in approach to Bernius, and the proximity of timings movement by movement is telling (see for instance the Gloria, 9:47 vs Bernius' 9:37, which is close to insignificant). Chorus and, overall, singers are excellent as they were with Bernius, with only the exception of Rademann's somewhat nasal tenor Marcus Ullmann, no match to the elegance of Bernius' Christoph Prégardien. But then, the tenor sings only in duet with baritone, in the second part of the Qui tollis peccata mundi, track 13. Male alto Kai Wessel has a big voice, evoking what a castrato may have sounded like at the time, but not as refined as Michael Chance's with Bernius. Soprano Heike Hallaschka may have a touch less purity than Bernius' Nancy Argenta in the first part of the Qui tollis aria, but that's only comparative, and she's still angelic enough.
Interpretive differences are slight. In the Christe eleison for soprano (track 10), Hallaschka's ornamentation on the two fermatas is more imaginative than Argenta's, and likewise with tenor and baritone at the end of the Qui tollis (8:21 into track 13), and alto at the end of Quoniam tu solus sanctus, track 16 (Michael Chance for Bernius does offer a nice ornamentation there, but Rademann's Kai Wessel is even wilder). On the other hand, Raumklang's recording offers slightly less sonic bloom, the orchestra sounds a touch more astringent and typically "period-instrument". Rademann's tempo is slightly more animated in the opening Christe eleison (which doesn't in the least invalidate Bernius', it's more a matter of powerful delivery from chorus than tempo in itself) and in Qui tollis peccata mundi (but it's a slow movement anyway, and Bernius in no way feels too slow, his pacing is perfectly valid there too), but the orchestra is a speck less energetic in the Gloria (track 12) and in the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus aria for alto (track 16). It's only in the Qui sedes, track 14, that the difference is striking, with Rademann adopting a much more animated tempo than Bernius and lending the music great agitated drama. But, as effective as Rademann's approach here may sound musically, I tend to prefer here the greater solemnity of Bernius, and find it more approapriate emotionally to the words being sung: why would a plea to He who sits at the right of the father to have mercy upon us need to be agitated and dramatic, and even threatening? But the passage is only 1:30 minute long.
Ultimately, all those minute differences are not significant enough to warrant strong recommendation in favor of one or the other. So main consideration is going to be price and complement. The first factor is evidently in favor of Bernius, which at the time of writing can be easily found for less than 5 (I've myself bought a number of copies to offer). As for complements, both CDs offer fine and appropriate fillers, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi another late masterpiece of Zelenka, his Marian Litany ZWV 152 from 1741/44, and Raumklang here a Miserere of Hasse - an appropriate choice, since Hasse was the guy who snatched the position of Court composer in Dresden in 1733 after the death of Heinichen, a post that Zelenka had been contemplating with some legitimacy, as he had been for a number of years the assistant and frequent replacement of the ailing composer. It didn't prevent him from getting along well with Hasse apparently and learning from his Italianate style.
The manuscript score uploaded on the International Music Scores Library Project by the Austrian National Library is different from what is sung by Rademann and his forces, the former apparently the original version for sopranos and altos, written in Venice around 1730 for the ladies of Ospedale degli incurabili, an institution for girls only, similar to the one where Vivaldi excercised his talents, and the latter a revision made in the 1760s for the Dresden Choir, and now for quartet and mixed choir. Sometimes the differences are minuscule, but the new version of Benigne fac Domine track 6 is much abridged, and some of the numbers have been completely re-written (Tibi solis peccavi track 2, Gloria track 7, transformed from a 5-bar chorus to a fully-fledged aria for alto, and concluding Sicut erat in principio track 8). Hasse's Miserere is a fine work, going from the imposingly funeral (opening Miserere, track 1) to the pastoral (Libera me, track 4, a duet for soprano and alto integral with flutes - although this may be an emendation by Rademann, since the competing version I have, mentioned below, uses the oboes there -, and track 5, Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium), with the same kind of powerful choral writing and distinctive solo arias as found with Zelenka - but not his passionate fugues, and not quite his orchestral daringness. But it's fascinating to see some of the orchestral effects of Zelenka already used by Hasse (they're in the uploaded score from the 1730s), in particular a taste for orchestral syncopations and the intense jubilation of some of the string writing, especially at the end of the "Ecce enim in iniquitatibus" movement, when the chorus reenters at 4:44 on the words "redde mihi laetitiam", "restore upon me the joy of thy salvation".
My comparison here is with the recording of Hermann Max leading his Rheinische Kantorei on Capriccio in 1993, Miserere - Sacred Choral Pieces of the Dresden Baroque (Zelenka · Hasse · Heinichen · Homilius) /Rheinische Kantorei · Das Kleine Konzert · Max, and sharing the same alto Kai Wessel - but here, together again with a greater sonic impact, a very different interpretive approach, more dramatic and forward-moving and less imposingly funeral in the opening Miserere (both visions are effective), and always more animated, dramatic and forceful in the solo arias. Max certainly has more immediate visceral impact, but he doesn't invalidate in the least Rademann's softer approach. While Wessel is comparable to himself and the two basses an equal match, I also marginally prefer Rademann's Hallaschka to Max's excellent but more operatic soprano Maria Zadori - an ideal voice for a Susanna.
Zelenka's Mass remains, I think, the main attraction of this CD. Independent of price I might have given stronger endorsement to Rademann/Raumklang, had his interpretation there been significantly different from Bernius'. There's a value to having contrasted views of a same masterwork in one's collection. But here, whatever the quality of the interpretation, given the similarity of approaches, this CD is probably best reserved to specialists and completists as myself. Those interest in Hasse's Miserere can safely go to Max/Capriccio, also a very coherent program with a Miserere of Zelenka and works of Heinichen and Homilius. But make no mistake: this recording by Rademann may not be the version you need to avidly jump on at any price, but it is by all means an excellent version of both pieces.
Check however under the disc's other entry for a better price: Miserere-Missa Dei Filii.