Collegium 1704 / Collegium Vocale 1704 / Václav Luks JAN DISMAS ZELENKA Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta - Lamentatio Ieremiae Prophetae

The music here was written for performance during Holy Week at the splendid Catholic court of Dresden in 1722. The example of Dresden stirred Johann Sebastian Bach to some of his most Italianate flights of opera-like music, and the composer of the Holy Week responsories heard here, the Bohemian-born Jan Dismas Zelenka (whom Bach himself admired), had an experimental, progressive spirit in much of his music. All the more of a surprise, then, to find that these pieces are written in an almost antique style. Each of the three Matins services is divided into three Nocturns, each of which is provided with three pairs of readings or lessons (given in chant) and three responsories, polyphonically set for a small choir (the two-singers-to-a-part forces heard here were apparently typical), with orchestral strings mostly doubling the vocal lines. The first of these is replaced here by one of Zelenka's settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, ZWV 53, a magnificent solo cantata for bass. After that, the entire two CDs' worth of music consists of the alternation between chant and chorus. The interest of the music, low-key indeed compared with something like the St. Matthew Passion but still displaying considerable skill and emotion, lies in the variety Zelenka achieves within this rather strict framework. The choral sections consist of similar elements: homophonic declamation, slow free polyphony, fugal passages, perhaps a short passage for solo voices. But each one has its own structure and flavor, evolving along with the story they tell. The Czech historical-performance groups Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 under Václav Luks do very well here, with a warmly blended yet precise sound from the singers that fits the music very well. This is not the place to start with Zelenka's choral music; one place might be the odd I Penitenti al Sepolchro del Redentore, ZWV 63. But it's a beautiful performance that will impress the composer's growing legion of fans. (James Manheim)

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