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Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745)
Trio Sonatas ZWV 181
Trio Sonata No. 1 in F major [15:20]
Trio Sonata No. 2 in G minor [17:48]
Trio Sonata No. 3 in B flat major [14:00]
Trio Sonata No. 4 in G minor [19:17]
Trio Sonata No. 5 in F major [14:44]
Trio Sonata No. 6 in C minor [13:30]
Ensemble Berlin Prag
Notes in English, French, German, and Czech
rec. 2017, Teldex Studio, Berlin,
SUPRAPHON SU4239-2 [47:10 + 47:33]

Even with the extensive re-discovery of music from the Baroque era, the infrequent programming of works by Jan Dismas Zelenka belies their quality, and they generally seem to require special pleading on the part of interested parties. Although this set of six Trio Sonatas has done well on disc with at least half a dozen other versions to choose from, it is perhaps not surprising that this new release comes from the Czech label Supraphon, promoting the cause of a composer born not far from Prague.

Listeners may be more likely to be familiar with his sacred and orchestral music, but these chamber compositions are equally rewarding. They combine the Germanic contrapuntal rigour of the likes of J.S. Bach, with the more immediately melodic appeal of Handel, undoubtedly adopting the sunny Italianate models for this type of composition which derive ultimately from Corelli’s examples. The musicians of Ensemble Berlin Prag bring out the irrepressible vivacity of these works accordingly, with the solid but precise timbres of their playing in which the cascade of notes, as it often seems, interlock tightly and persuasively. Nevertheless the movements breathe and the pace is dignified, without unnecessary haste, as evidence for which is the Allegro second movement of No. 3: despite the furious semiquaver sequences for the bassoon, Mor Biron handles these accurately but humorously, maintaining an evenness of tone throughout and therefore an immaculate equality among the three principal instruments.

That third Sonata varies the timbre otherwise used throughout the set by replacing the second oboe with a violin, and softening the generally pungent reedy textures of the three woodwind instruments over the basso continuo in the other five compositions. Jakub Černohorský sustains a sweet-toned quality on the violin in this Sonata, but even so, some delightfully plangent suspensions result against the oboe during the first movement. In the other Sonatas Domink Wollenweber and Vilém Veverka alternate from one to the next in taking the first and second oboes respectively, ensuring that neither is tempted to predominate, although Zelenka’s writing generally precludes that in any case with the constant passing of the melodic material back and forth between them. As such the performers are in perfect accord as they embellish, for example, the Larghetto third movement of No. 1 as though it were an operatic duet, and indeed so closely are their melodic roles intertwined elsewhere that perhaps a greater contrast in acoustic perspective could have been effected between them.

That is a minor criticism, however, as it is an impressive achievement by Ensemble Berlin Prag that they sustain necessary tension across the long, developmental spans of Zelenka’s music which never seems to settle down for long on a particular motif or harmony, but restlessly renews itself in new but related directions. No. 5 presents a different challenge with its lengthy first movement, in that the three instruments separately emerge into and recede from the limelight in more extended episodic passages around the recurring unison theme of its ritornello like a Vivaldi chamber concerto, rather than the more fleeting interplay among the instruments generally typical of these Sonatas. That prompts the oboists to play a touch more sweetly as they come forward, rather than quite so forcefully as they might in those other textures where they have to rebut, confirm, or imitate the other in more quick-witted fashion and so need to make a musical point more urgently.

Ensemble Berlin Prag do not use authentic instruments, but their performances are generally lean and crisp. In that respect they provide a serious alternative to the long-acclaimed recording led by Heinz Holliger and, if anything, achieve a more irresistibly playful account of these Sonatas. Their interpretations certainly deserve the attention of devotees of this music, but they will also stimulate listeners who do not yet know these seriously underrated masterpieces of the Baroque instrumental repertoire.
Curtis Rogers
Previous review: Michael Cookson



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