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Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745)
6 Trio Sonatas for 2 oboes (violin), bassoon and basso continuo, ZWV 181 (pre. 1723) [94.39]
Ensemble Berlin Prag
rec. 2017, Teldex Studio, Berlin
SUPRAPHON SU4239-2 [47.08 + 47.31]

The Czech label Supraphon has blazed a trail in encouraging wider circulation of the music of Bohemian-born composer Zelenka. This new chamber release of the set of six trio sonatas performed by Ensemble Berlin Prag is yet another excellent album from the label that will promote the cause of the composer. The Early Music specialist in historically informed performance, Reinhard Goebel, who is artistic supervisor for this release, describes Zelenka as a great composer, one of the five top composers of the early 18th century, along with J.S. Bach, Leclair, Handel and Locatelli. I’m surprised that Goebel omits Telemann from his list although he has recorded several albums of the of the composer’s work

Around 1710 Zelenka moved to Dresden to play double bass for the Cappella Polacca, an ensemble which Friedrich Augustus II (1670-1733), the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, known as ‘Augustus the Strong’, had formed to perform predominantly Catholic church music at the Dresden Court. Players were invited from all over Europe to join the Cappella Polacca which was then regarded as one of the finest collectives of virtuosi assembled.

Increasingly acknowledged as a composer as well as musician Zelenka in 1734 was granted the titular title “church composer” which he held until his death in 1745. Zelenka probably wrote for his court musicians, the six trio sonatas scored for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo, a set of unfailingly vivid and colourful works that originate from the church sonata form. Compositional dates are uncertain but they may have been composed sometime between 1714/16 and no later than 1723. Five of the sonatas are scored for pairs of oboes with bassoon, while the third in B flat-major dispenses with one of the oboes for a violin. At times the bassoon does form part of the basso continuo section of double bass or violone and harpsichord. All six sonatas are cast in four movements sonata da chiesa form except for the three-movement, fifth in F major.

A combination of the finest German and Czech artists, Ensemble Berlin Prag was founded in 2011. Prior to the release of this album of Zelenka sonatas the ensemble played two of the trio sonatas in concert performance at the Kammermusiksaal of the Philhamonie, Berlin. The players who have clearly given great care to performance preparation have selected a combination of modern and period instruments. The reedy oboes played by Dominik Wollenweber and Vilém Veverka are modern, as is Mor Biron’s rich sounding bassoon. Violinist Jakub Černohorský uses metal strings and the harpsichord played by Barbara Maria Willi is a period-copy. Ulrich Wolff has given considerable thought to his choice of instruments and explained to me that in the hope of trying to realise the often enigmatic intentions of the composer (a double bassist) he has elected to alternate between works in playing a violone and a double bass. Sonatas 1, 3 and 5 are played with a 6 string violone (a Giovanni Paolo Maggini copy) with frets, pure gut strings and period bow in a higher pitch, intended to capture more of the sound definition and clarity of these sonatas that employ a partly obbligato bassoon. The double bass he uses for sonatas 2, 4 and 6 provides a different character to the instrumentation mix and line of the basso continuo. It’s a slightly larger, 4 string double bass (Giovanni B. Grancino from 1695) fitted with silver wound gut strings, having a lower pitch to gain additional space in the sound.

Weighty Bohemian rhythms thrive in these Zelenka trio sonatas together with colourful and often piquant, eclectic European influences. With a strong sense of engagement by the impeccably prepared Ensemble Berlin Prag, this is satisfying playing where nothing feels compromised or overheated. Like a meeting of like minds, the rapport between the gifted players is riveting together with a striking level of unity. With fluency and splendid articulation, the performers produce firm textures and warm colours that seem to bring every phrase freshly to life. From Teldex Studio, Berlin, the recording has admirable clarity with a balance that favours the oboes, bassoon and violin. My preference is for a slightly further forward placed double-bass and violone especially the latter, and the harpsichord is to my ears scarcely audible. I wonder about the future possible addition of a cello to the basso continuo. Reinhard Goebel is the author of the booklet essay which is a helpful read.

Zelenka’s trio sonatas are quite outstandingly played by Ensemble Berlin Prag making a convincing case for this often undervalued music. This is the sort of compelling release that I’m sure will prompt purchasers to further investigate Zelenka’s works.

Michael Cookson



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