Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 – 1745), a Bohemian composer born south of Prague who cut his teeth in Vienna before ending up in Dresden as a dreaded “church composer” (indicating he failed, as did J.S. Bach, to win the coveted Kapellmeister post) is still largely unknown to the general public, despite a veritable renaissance in CD releases over the past 15 years, particularly of his astonishing sacred works.
Rather than cover the details of his life (which are largely unknown), we’ll instead focus on his unique musical style, very Bach-like in its complex, tightly wound contrapuntal structure, but much more harmonically adventurous and unpredictable, with a penchant for phrases of varying length and a particular fondness for horn and reed instruments, spinning out lines so virtuosic they are virtually unplayable by all but the most notable musicians today.
While musicologists consider his late masses and trio sonatas to represent the apex of his oeuvre, I firmly believe the best place to start for the neophyte is his orchestral works, particularly the splendid triple package of discs formerly released separately of Jürgen Sonnentheil leading the remarkable Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre, consisting largely of German, Dutch and French musicians on period instruments.
The pieces range from “capriccios” featuring an overture-like introductory followed by a series of dance movements (those composed in Vienna with florid horn parts) to ‘hipocondrie’ that typically feature his coveted bassoon in an obbligato role.
Many of the capriccios will remind you of Bach’s Orchestral Suites with one notable difference that, risking cries of sacrilege, I’d trumpet from any nearby rooftop: they’re far more interesting (though, admittedly, nothing here equals the famous Badinerie for stylish splendor), with a greater variety between brisk romps and expressive largos.
One difference is his use of folksier dance forms, with labels such as “Paysan” or “Il Furibundo," another is his penchant for doubling melodic lines on oboe and viola, giving an electric splendor to the proceedings. Throw in fully round swells from a valveless hunting horn and you’ll quickly realize – this isn't your grandma’s Baroque.
Though all three of the Sonnentheil disks are excellent (making the full set a wiser purchase), I’d single out Vol. 2 largely on the strengths of the compositions, which range from suites that sound like quirkier, more directly goal-bound Telemann to indescribably eccentric exercises, as in my favorite – Simphonie à 8 Concertanti for 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 violins, viola, cello & continuo in A minor, ZWV 189 (quite a mouthful) – with its water bugging, caffeinated, 10-minute opening Allegro that flies by, sporting nervous, constantly backtracking string and oboe lines that manage to eclipse Bach’s record for cramming notes into a measure, even though the overarching tempo is rather average.
Somehow managing to house bold, extroverted expression within firmly disciplined counterpoint, Zelenka occupies a unique corner of any Baroque library. Be honest – couldn't your lower shelf use a bit of freshening?