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A pleasure to meet Zelenka, in a barn

11 December 2015

Roderic Dunnett hears Baroque music by a still-neglected master


A SELECTION of Baroque music by the 18th-century master Jan Zelenka (1679-1745) had enjoyed a preliminary outing in St John’s, Smith Square, in late October, and involved a revealing collaboration between the Hampshire-based Bury Court Opera, where the repeat concert took place, and a vital small London-based chamber ensemble founded in 2008, Spiritato!, whom I had not encountered before. What a combination these forces, and this magical venue, made together.

Spirited is exactly what this young group, who were matched here with a no less spirited full choir from one of London’s best-known teaching hospitals, proved. Combined with the beautiful, acoustically appetising Bury Court Barn, where opera thrives once or twice a year, and the orchestral support provided by Simon Over’s thrillingly engaging young Southbank Sinfonia, they served up a choral and orchestral concert that could scarcely better have introduced a Saxon-Bohemian choral composer who is little known in Britain.

Why are audiences so unadventurous that many concert-planners and entrepreneurs baulk at programming composers — such as Myslivecek, Tomášek, Voríšek, Fibich, Foerster, Novák — whose names are unfamiliar, but whose music can be as uplifting as J. S. Bach’s?

Jan Dismas Zelenka, five-and-a-half years older than Bach, is one of those contemporaries of whom his Leipzig neighbour spoke with profound respect. Bach knew Telemann, midway in age between Zelenka and himself, intimately, and made him godfather to his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. But, in a document at St Thomas’s, Leipzig, Bach lists Buxtehude, Handel, Zelenka, Fasch, Mattheson, Keiser, Kuhnau (his predecessor), and more than 20 others whose music he admired intensely, and whose scores he had studied.

Zelenka headed the music at the royal Saxon court in Dresden — partly alone, partly with others (notably Hasse, senior Kapellmeister from 1731) — while Bach ruled the roost in Leipzig, and Telemann in Hamburg. If you want to find Zelenka’s music now, look no further than the Czech recording label Supraphon; for Zelenka did indeed come from the part of the Habsburg empire known as Bohemia: in this case, from a market town, Lounovice pod Blaníkem (the mountain Blaník is famous from Smetana’s Má Vlast), to the south-east of Prague. There is a handsome bronze plaque commemorating him there to this day.

Zelenka, Court Composer from 1734-35, but active in Dresden for 16 years before that, if he was not prominent, as Hasse was, in opera, dominated and flourished in church music instead. Heading this are three Italianate cantatas/oratorios, all from a concentrated period: Il serpente di bronzo (1730), exploring the story of Moses, and employing the chorus to depict the divided and disputing Israelites; the Passion oratorio Gesù al Calvario (1735); and I penitenti al sepolcro del Redentore (1736).

An astounding and vital cantata, well up to Bach standards, is Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis (“Beneath the olive of peace and palm branch of virtue”; just listen to the opening on Supraphon SU4113-2 232 double disc: it could be Bach’s Christmas Oratorio). This reflects his interest in the more philosophical kind of text explored by Lully and French composers of the preceding century, by Handel, and by Monteverdi before them.

There followed some 21 Zelenka Masses, which are available today on several CD labels. A quasi-drama on the life of St Wenceslas, Bohemia’s patron saint, and many anthems (above all, some 100 vital psalm settings), motets, and liturgical works (including ten treatments of the Litany and two choral Te Deums) flowed from Zelenka’s pen.

Early 18th-century Dresden, under its Elector, August II the Strong (who had become a Roman Catholic to become King of Poland), was lucky indeed. Instrumental works, including a flood of orchestral suites similar to Bach’s or Telemann’s (and easily available on the German CPO/JPC label), reveal instrumental drive, slick orchestration, and dazzling flair.

His trio sonatas — no. 3 in B flat was played at Bury Court with beautiful clarity and finesse — rival Telemann’s and Handel’s. Venerated as a composer, musician, and choir director, Zelenka was loved by his charges, young and old. Bury Court’s concert certainly showed why the former applied.

From boyhood, Zelenka (who never married) was a virtuoso on the violone, or bass viol, which first brought him to the Saxon capital; and, while primarily a composer, he kept up assiduous practice on that stringed instrument into later life. In this buoyant and thriving concert, the proficiency and design of the bass line — so crucial to composition of all eras — proved an essential tool of his trade.

In fact, Zelenka often (although certain Masses, such as the Mass in D, are of simpler construction) wends down different paths from his great contemporaries, being inventive in his harmonic shifts and their ensuing dissonance, particularly in his penitential works, such as the Italian-influenced I penitenti al Sepolcro del Redentore (ZWV 63, 1736). In earlier days, he wisely took time out to study with the great Lotti. He also studied with J. J. Fux, the pre-eminent Baroque composer in Vienna at the time. For all this, Zelenka was admired and viewed as an innovative leader in the European musical field, not a clone or camp follower of Bach.

It added to the piquancy and the pleasure of Bury Court that some top young singers were on show in the barn setting. In this Hampshire hideaway, we were treated to the recitative and aria “Il Diamante”, sung with gusto by the soprano Augusta Hebbert, a splendid Baroque specialist (replacing the indisposed Romanian Eliana Pretorian, who blossomed as the ugly sister Clorinda in Bury Court’s 2012 production of La Cenerentola); and, immediately after, Zelenka’s cantata Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, extremely well driven by Spiritato!’s conductor, Julian Perkins. Perkins had brought some fine Baroque trumpeters; so we were treated to two telling volleys of Zelenka’s Trumpet Fanfare (ZWV 212).

Most substantial and bracing of all was the Barts Chamber Choir (founded in 1965 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital) and soloists let loose on Bach’s Missa Dei Filii (ZWV 20), a work that had the same kind of buzz as the thunderous Olea pacis cantata mentioned above. What they confirmed was the originality of Zelenka’s music’s overtly Baroque demeanour.

Again, Hebbert shone above all; but the choir’s Misereres, and the Sudan-born countertenor Magid El-Bushra, a former Academical Clerk of Magdalen College, Oxford, subsequently trained by the flourishing De Vlaamse Oper (Flanders Opera), came impressively close to the quality of the stunning Czech countertenor Markus Forster on the Supraphon double-disc: Forster had showed himself an easy match for Britain’s justly vaunted Iestyn Davies. With the attentive Barts choir, even Zelenka’s introductory plainsong floated as ethereally as at Solesmes.

So, this was a refreshingly pioneering evening for Bury Court’s entrepreneurial owners (and gardeners) John Coke and Suzanne Lemieux. The delicious venue, tucked away behind Bentley, a village on the A31 midway between Alton and Farnham, has worked marvels since its opening in 2007: the quality of performance and productions has been enviable.

Besides concerts, Bury Court now stages three or four opera events annually, part home-grown, after an utterly stunning setting of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, set by the director, Julia Burbach, in a St Trinian’s-like school. There El-Bushra likewise excelled, and Over’s orchestra proved its versatility by excelling in 18th-century Baroque. Each of Bury Court’s home productions has been imaginative, and a visual delight. It is a very special venue.


Puccini’s Madam Butterfly runs at Bury Court from 12 to 20 March next year. http://burycourtopera.org

The website “Discover Zelenka” is worth a visit: www.jdzelenka.net

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