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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.