... for the fall of Jerusalem, of course, by the Prophet Jeremiah, but quite appropriate for Our Times as well, with the once proud City on the Hill of democratic capitalism in shambles of its own creation.
The Lamentations texts were recited and set to music as part of the liturgical services of Holy Week, at Matins on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (by modern clock/calendar). The usual service was tri-partite, with only the first two sections set to music, as is the case with Zelenka. Many composers have left settings of the Lamentations; recordings are available right now for those of Brumel, Tallis, Palestrina, White, Lassus, Massaino, de Orto, Cavalieri, Durante, Rosenmüller, Stravinsky, Ginastera, Martynov, Schnittke, and perhaps others. Let me crawl out to the end of the limb, and declare that, to my ears, Zelenka's setting is the most extraordinary, the most emotionally potent of all.
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) was the son of a small-town organist in Bohemia. He was educated in Prague at a Jesuit college, he traveled at least briefly to Vienna and to Italy, and his musical tradition was that of the Italian-Viennese catholic composers - Caldara and Fux, for instance. Opportunity took him away from that musical ambience, however, to spend the bulk of his career in Dresden, in the shadow of the German-school Kapellmeister JD Heinichen. In a sense, Zelenka seems to have hit some kind of 'glass ceiling' in his career, never receiving the more prestigious appointments he sought and deserved.
Zelenka these days is often compared to JS Bach, a comparison put forward both by admirers of his work and by Czech nationalists in music. The comparison is justified; Zelenka's virtues, as a composer of the deepest profundity and theoretical acumen, are exactly those of Bach. Both men were simultaneously 'old-fashioned' according to the popular tastes of their maturity, yet extremely novel and adventuresome in their explorations of the harmonic resources of their era. Both of them were unafraid to write music that challenged the skills of their players and singers to the maximum, as well as the musical sensibilities of their audiences. Both of them left some of their grandest compositions unperformed during their lifetimes, unheard except in the minds of their composers until our day.
These Lamentations were probably performed in the Electoral chapel in Dresden. The manuscript that has survived is dated 1722. They are scored for solo voice and a small orchestra; the Chandos Players use recorders, oboes, violins, viola, cello, bassoon, double bass, and organ. Zelenka's instrumental writing is remarkably 'progressive;' earlier composers had certainly exploited the affective color of individual instruments, and written idiomatically for them, but Zelenka boldly mixes and matches the timbres of the whole orchestra into an expressive palette, a symphonic whole. It's this symphonic coloration that puts modern listeners to thinking of Haydn and Mozart when they hear Zelenka. On the other hand, the dark chromatics and eccentric voice leading of these Lamentations, especially those for Maundy Thursday, put 'yours truly' to thinking backwards, to Gesualdo and Palestrina. It's one of the odd scraps of biographical knowledge of Zelenka that have survived, by the way, that he was a avid collector of Renaissance musical manuscripts.
Although the full series of six Lamentations were not intended to be performed together, but rather in pairs of two on three consecutive evenings, they form a remarkably unified whole. Even with much reiteration of the words of the text -- each Lament concludes with an extended treatment of the refrain "Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum -- and with every movement adagio, there is a potent current of emotion in this music, from the desolation expressed in the first lamentaion, sung by bass Michael George, to a kind of serenity and consolation in the last Lamentation, sung by countertenor Michael Chance, an affective transformation supported by the simplest progressive from minor key to major. The only other work of the 18th Century to which this composition might be compared is Haydn's sublime string quartet based on his oratorio of The Seven Last Words.
Chance and George are joined by tenor John Mark Ainsley, and all three sing at the acme of their talents. This is a recording of the highest musicianship in every aspect. Is it too early in the month to declare it the Giordano Bruno "must-buy" CD for March?