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Zelenka: Missa Dei Patris Psalms & Capriccio's
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Zelenka: Missa Dei patris, Psalms & Capriccio's
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Missa Dei Patris, ZWV19 - Caprices, ZWV183, ZWV190 & ZWV185 - Laudate pueri, ZWV81 - Confitebor tibi Domine, ZWV71 / P. Schreier, ténor - O. Bär, baryton - R. Jacobs, alto - Thüringischer Akademischer Singkreis - Virtuosi Saxoniae - L. Güttler, direction
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This Missa Dei Patri is a good case in point. Despite its small catalog numbering, ZWV 19, it is one of Zelenka's ultimate compositions, from 1740. It is part of a cycle which Zelenka intended to reach six such masses, but ultimately he composed only two others, the Missa Dei Fili ZWV 20 and Missa Omnium Sanctorum ZWV 21. Apparently he wrote them with no performance in mind (no parts exist, only a conductor score), and they weren't performed during his lifetime.
Like its two companions, Missa Dei Patris is an incredible masterpiece, with an opulence that seems to point to the great masses of Haydn, choral numbers of explosive power and/or tear-wringing solemn beauty (the choral "ascent to heaven" at 0:30 in the Sanctus, track 15, is one of these moments) and often with surprising melodic twists, fugues that equal those of Bach, if not surpass them in their searing and sweeping passion ("Cum sancto spirito", track 9, repeated on the final chorus, Dona nobis pacem, track 20), and a melodic writing for soloists that, like those of Handel and Vivaldi, is always distinctive and invigorating. Zelenka's orchestra is reduced to strings, with two oboes that are, here, unless I've missed something, never given a solo role but always double the strings, but there is nothing austere in his accompaniment, on the contrary he uses his ensemble in a highly colorful and virtuosic manner, as exemplified by the extraordinarily florid accompaniment in the Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus (track 8) and even more of Et resurrexit (track 13). Truly, when I'm listening to this extraordinary and breathtaking invention that is the Et resurrexit followed by the Et vitam venture saeculi, I don't know who else composed like that around 1740. In fact, I'm not even sure Haydn or Mozart composed anything of such furious power, fifty years later. And I'm thinking that Zelenka didn't reach much success and recognition in his lifetime, because he was too daring, way too much in advance on his own time.
And yet, when you have zillion of performances and recordings of Bach's Mass in B, Handel's Messiah and Vivaldi's Gloria, this is only one of the two recordings of Missa Dei Patris represented on CD (there was another one in the LP era), and the situation is the same with the Missa Dei Filii and Missa Omnium Sanctorum. It was made in 1988 and was a pionneering effort, in a time when Zelenka was still very much a Czech specialty. Frieder Bernius, who made a great recording of Missa Dei Filii in 1989 for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (Zelenka: Missa Dei Filii / Litaniae Lauretanae), recorded the Missa Dei Patri in 2000 for Carus (Missa Dei Patris). There are also only two recordings of ZWB 21, one by Bernius again from 1997 for Sony that wasn't even distributed in the US and isn't offered at the time of writing, Musik aus der Dresdner Hofkirche: Missa Omnium Sanctorum and ditto for the French budget reissue, Zelenka: Messe Ultimarum Sexta (Missa Omnium Sanctorum), Zwv 21), and one by the Prague Baroque Soloists under Adam Viktora, Zelenka: Missa Omnium Sanctorum, Christe eleison, Barbara dira effera.
Although my comparative appreciation is tentative because tainted by the fact that I've listened to Bernius not from the CD but from the YouTube upload and hence probably in inferior sonic conditions, ultimately, if you have only one, I find Güttler's version preferable. His is an approach on a grand scale, with a sizeable orchestra (Bernius' Stuttgart Baroque Ensemble sounds more astringent and typically period-instrument) further magnified by sonics with a long resonance. Compared to Bernius, Güttler also has a somewhat thick and heavy continuo and oftentimes a heaviness of motion and lack of dynamism, especially at the beginning of the work (as in the orchestral introduction, or the fugue on the opening Kyrie track 1 at 2:21, the Domine Fili track 6, the Credo track 10). Some of the more funeral passages can take that approach (as the Domine Deus, track 5), but sometimes Güttler is also entirely up to the music, as in his exhilaratingly dynamic Gloria, track 4, much better than Bernius here. He is impressively powerful in Qui sedes track 7, in Crucifixus, track 12, Et resurrexit track 13, searing in the Cum Sancto Spirito fugue (track 9), and in the Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus trio (track 8) he is suitably dynamic and there is little to choose there between him and Bernius. But, even when Güttler occasional plods compared to Bernius (as in the Credo, track 10), the choral moments are always grand and powerful and particularly well spotlighted by the sonics, more so than with Bernius whose chorus (with the proviso that this may be an effect of hearing it on Youtube) sounds smaller-scaled and less impressive. Although I've always found René Jacobs sour in tone, the soloists (which include Olaf Bär) are fine. I had never heard or heard of soprano Venceslava Hruba-Freiberger, but she sings exquisitely. In the Benedictus (for baritone, track 16) and Agnus Dei I (for alto, track 18), it is Bernius who is more plangent and funeral, and excessively so I find, it bogs down the music: Güttler's more animated tempi are preferable here. The Mass is a huge work, running here 70 minutes. It is, as its companion the Missa Dei Filii, one of the great masterpieces of early 18th Century sacred music. Experience shows that it is possible to survive without knowing the music of Zelenka (or Bach, or Handel), but life is way more fulfilling and fulfilled when you do.
The Dresden library, where hundreds of manuscripts of Zelenka are held, has done a tremendous and admirable job at scanning them and putting them online on the International Music Scores Library Project. It's very moving to see those manuscripts. Some - and it is the case with Missa Dei Patris - are in a dangerously tattered condition, and they are occasionally difficult to read, because hastily handwritten with nearly undecipherable indications, with compositional conventions different from those of today (for instance, the rhythms on the different staves are often not aligned vertically), sometimes in faded ink and on damaged sheets of paper. But in the case of Missa Dei Patris, for the info of anyone who'd be interested, like me, in listening to the music while following with the score, I must say that whoever did the uploading job made things particularly difficult for the reader, because some of the movements are a jumble of pages out-of-sequence. So you first have to realize that something is wrong ("why am I lost?"), then try to figure out what the problem is. It took me hours - which at least were hours spent with the Missa. For instance, the Gloria, which starts page 34 on IMSLP, gos in a sequence 34, 36, 35, 38, 37, 40, 39, 42, 41, 44, 43, 46, 45, 48, 47, 49 and from there back to normal. Things are even more complicated in the Domine Fili, because there Zelenka wrote on two systems, and obviously the score is to be read upper system page left to upper system page right, then lower system page left to lower system page right. But since the pages are loaded one after the other (and out of sequence) and must be scrolled vertically, you get a sequence of 58-1, 60-1, 58-2, 60-2, 59-1, 61-1, 59-2, 61-2 etc. In order to follow the Agnus Dei Aria for alto (track 18), you need to realize that it's written on three systems, so the sequence is 184-1, 185-1, 184-2, 185-2, 184-3, 185-3 and repeat with 186-187 (but I haven't found the four bars of coda on the manuscript). The final fugue, Dona nobis pacem, track 20, past its first page (189), is also written on two systems, so the sequence is 190-1, 191-1, 190-2, 191-2, 192-1 and so forth.The one that gave me the most trouble was the beginning of the Et resurrexit. Things go smoothly when the chorus enters, but I simply couldn't reconcile what I heard and what I saw during the extrarordinary orchestral introduction, tried to see if the first page of the movement had not been put out of its sequence but just couldn't find the page that corresponded to the music I heard.... until I realized that the first page (page 134 on IMSLP) was perfectly in its sequence... but turned upside down! Well, it is certainly music to bowl you over.
And a P.S. from August 7: I mustered by best German and reported the problem to the Dresden library. They acknowledged receipt, explained that the Missa manuscript was a complicated case because it is one of the rare instances in which the manuscript is in the form of loose, unbound sheets of paper, and the page numbering is sometimes faulty, with recto and verso inverted. They'll fix it. Glad I could bring a very small contribution to the posterity of this great work.
At the time of writing there's a cheaper offer than this: Zelenka: Missa Dei Patris.