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From A to Zelenka

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J. B. Stockigt, Jan Dismas Zelenka: A Bohemian Musician at the Court of Dresden

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J. D. Zelenka, Orchestral Works, Camerata Bern, A. von Wijnkoop
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The Baroque period, a century and a half of composition, is full of forgotten music, including that of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745). He was from Bohemia, born in the small village of Launowitz, about twenty miles from Prague, but he spent much of his career working in various capacities for the Catholic court of Dresden. Most of his music was for the liturgical celebrations of the Hofkapelle there, but he also composed instrumental music. His set of five orchestral suites, known as the Capriccios, made for entertainments following the hunting parties of the Prince Elector, fill out the picture of this sort of occasional music in the early 18th century, from Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks to Bach's Brandenburg Concerti to Telemann's Musique de Table. On Saturday night, at Montgomery College's Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, the Bach Sinfonia offered what was billed as the first North American performance of the complete set.

The players used a new critical edition of the scores, prepared by Bach Sinfonia's artistic director, Daniel Abraham. Each suite begins with an introductory movement, followed by a few dances, some of them rather extravagant, with various exotic or folk associations, which may be the reason behind the unusual title of Capriccio. The purpose of this kind of music is to divert the ear, and it certainly does that, although some movements are more striking than others (the Allemande and first trio of the F major Capriccio, which is the most beautiful of the set; the aria of the D major; the Canarie of the A major; the Il Contento movement of the G major, no. 5), with all sorts of styles and composer influences heard. The playing could have been more polished than it was, with some of the blame going to the unreliable nature of the historical instruments. The oboes, generally brash and on target, struggled in the fast parts, like the opening movement of No. 2, and the (gut) strings had more than their share of tuning and unity issues. Harpsichordist Dongsok Shin and theorbist Scott Pauley (switching to infectious Baroque guitar for some of the peppier movements) added some sparkly touches to the continuo part.

It is a lot of unknown music to cover in limited rehearsal time, and there were a few missed or early entrances, in the horn parts, one in the bassoon. Horn players R. J. Kelley and Alexandra Cook did their level best on the solo horn parts, playing natural horns that required different lengths of loop attachments to switch keys, with all notes reached only by lipped partials. Many of the horn parts go extremely high, so far up the tessitura that other recordings (Virtuosi Saxoniae, on Berlin Classics) have used trumpets for some of the high horn parts. Some of these passages were painful to hear or just frankly left out, leaving one to think that perhaps some of them were intended for a different instrument with a higher range. For those looking for a recording of these often beautiful and diverting works, there is good news: the small field of contenders will be expanding by one, since the Bach Sinfonia will spend a few days this week recording the Capriccios, hopefully with some of the problems ironed out.

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