Zelenka - The Bohemian Bach: Concert: Sunday 1 November: Review

The following review appeared in The 20 November edition of the Farnham Herald: 

 Min Wood wrote:..."Cultural treasures are easily lost, threatened as they are by politics, prejudice and fashion.  Take the music of Jan Dismas Zelenka, 1679-1745, a Court composer for August the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, in Dresden.  It was then  a city striving to be the cultural heart of Europe.  The Court orchestra set a new standard of excellence and into this inspired group Zelenka, from Prague, was brought as a double bass player.  He had two other important attributes.  He came with a deep knowledge of Bohemian folk music and he was Catholic in a staunchly Lutheran city.

Zelenka brought to his work not just an understanding of counterpoint but also the colour and excitement of that folk music.  Ebullient swoops and trills from the orchestra, choir and soloists mark his music as being very different from the more restrained style of his contemporary JS Bach whose work overshadowed his.

During Zelenka's  lifetime, Protestant Europe was locked in a confrontation with France and had little use for Catholic church music. On his death all his scores, some of them never performed, were locked away.  It was feared that these manuscripts had all been lost in the firestorm which destroyed Dresden in 1945 but in fact, they were safe in the Palace at Pillnitz and are now, at last, being widely appreciated.

Zelenka's work was brought to a local audience by Bury Court Opera, based in Bentley, first at a concert in St John's Smith Square on October 20, and then at Bury Court itself on November 1.

Zelenka's work was explored in these venues by Barts Chamber Choir and the ensemble Spiritato!, formed by the trumpeter William Russell and conducted by Julian Perkins.  They performed Zelenka's religious choral compositions  Il Serpente di Bronzo and the Missa dei Filli, which celebrates the birth of the son of God, along with the secular wedding piece Il Diamante and his Trio Sonato No 3.  These were measured against a gem by JS Bach - his Cantata No 50.

In the austere St John's Smith Square, the Bach, written for performance in the great cathedrals of Europe, seemed to have the edge, but in the intimacy of the Barn at Bury Court, the Zelenka proved its worth.  His work had been written for a more select Court audience.

While Bach's music marches rhythmically from bar to bar with almost military precision, Zelenka's flows like a river.  As a bass player he understandably scored good parts in the lower register notably for the bassoon, here played with great musicianship by Inga Klauke, and suggests a confidence that he was writing for virtuosi.  Not content with any humdrum baroque rhythms, after a steady beat or two, every department is swiftly challenged to elaborate on the musical line.  In the higher registers, for example, the slithering of the snakes tormenting the Israelites is brought vividly to life in the Serpente di Bronzo.

Zelenka was also able to write extended passages for soloists in a way which anticipates the Bel Canto style of a century later.  These were delivered with admirable fluency by the soprano Augusta Hebbert, especially in the Missa dei Filli. The translucent voice of the countertenor Magid el Bushra marked the light touch which Zelenka could also bring to his religious works.

It is through playing and singing of this high standard that these lost treasures can become part of the standard repertoire once again.  They should.  The great Bach Held Zelenka's music in higth esteem.   Critic Min Wood  November 2015.

Reproduced by kind permission of Tindle Newspapers.