in: Reviews

May 12, 2013

Zelenka Astonishes

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Celebrating conductor David Hoose’s 30th anniversary as Music Director, the Cantata Singers and Ensemble presented a concert of three stunning works at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday evening. The title “Rhetoric’s Revolution” provided a conceptual link among stylistically differentiated works by three generations of composers, all working within the aura of 18th-century Viennese classicism: Mozart’s Corpus Christi motet “Ave verum corpus,” Haydn’s adventurous Symphony No. 47 in G major, and Jan Dismas Zelenka’s monumental Missa votiva in E minor.

As Christoph Wolff has shown in his recently published study of the composer’s last years (Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune, Norton, 2010), in the late 1780s, after a hiatus during the earlier Vienna years, Mozart showed renewed interest in the composition of sacred music. This can be associated with his performances of vocal works by Handel and C.P.E. Bach and his study of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Wolff links a new concern with transparent four-part vocal writing in “Ave verum corpus,” composed on June 17th, 1791, to similar writing in the Requiem, commissioned anonymously in the summer of 1791, and The Magic Flute, premiered on September 30th. It would be easy to dismiss the hymn-like texture of “Ave verum corpus” as “simple,” but that would be to overlook its many melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal subtleties. Hoose’s supple yet consistent direction brought out the best from the choir of forty-four voices and string ensemble of twenty-two plus organ, pointing up without untoward exaggeration Mozart’s delicious chromatic elaborations, his brief harmonic excursions into F major and D minor, and return to a peaceful D major, enhanced along the way by departures from the prevailing chordal texture when the soprano soars briefly above the rest of the ensemble, or when canonic imitation between the upper and lower voices is introduced. In the service of a well-known Latin devotional text from the 14th century, all of this was expressed rhetorically by the very restraint and subtlety of its setting.

Haydn’s middle period Symphony No. 47 in G major explored another kind of musical rhetoric involving instrumental humor and thwarted expectations. Here the strings were augmented by oboes, bassoon, and a pair of horns. While we are accustomed to hearing strings carry the thematic weight in classical symphonies, here the horns lead off with a forthright march rhythm on repeated notes. Emerging out of the opening downbeat tonic chord, with the strings answering offbeat, the insistent horns, a major second apart, are joined by the oboes in a dissonant buildup that goes on for several measures before resolving again on the tonic. Now the horn march theme remains a stern reminder while more ingratiating motives appear in the strings and oboes, with faster and denser figuration adding to the excitement. In the development, the strings lead off with the march motive, now piano, before embarking on a series of modulations and climactic scale figures leading to another surprise: the return of the opening march theme takes place not in the expected G major but in a passionate G minor before it is diverted back to a sunny conclusion in major. The second movement, Adagio, is a series of elegant variations on a beautiful cantabile theme, presented in ever-increasing density of figuration ornamenting the basically two-part texture. With the fourth variation, the rhythmic density suddenly decreases while the number of contrapuntal voices increases as oboes and horns join the action, only to drop out shortly before the movement ends on a whisper in the strings. In the third movement Haydn has some more fun. The autograph labels it simply “Menuet al roverso” and “Trio al roverso,” providing notation only for the first half of each section. The second half has to be realized by reading the first section backwards from the end to the beginning, so that strong downbeats at the beginning of a measure (marked forte) become disruptive accents on the third beat when played in reverse. The Finale goes like the wind, in cut time, and Hoose took it to the limits of the possible, bringing this altogether surprising symphony to a triumphant close.

Hoose and the Cantata Singers have become local champions of the music of the Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. Earlier this season they performed three of his responsory mote’s for Holy Week, and more Zelenka is promised for the 2013-2014 season. Born near Prague in 1679, Zelenka moved to Dresden around 1710 as a double bass player in the court orchestra, and his sacred music was soon performed in the newly established Catholic court church, the Saxon Elector, Friedrich August I having recently converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism. Aware of their provinciality in matters artistic, German princes of the period employed Italian singers and often sent composers in their employ abroad to study. From 1616 to 1619 Zelenka was sent not to France or Italy but to Vienna, where he studied counterpoint with the famous teacher Johann Joseph Fux. Although the Dresden opera closed in 1720, Catholic liturgical music in the royal chapel continued to receive strong support into the 1730s from the elector and his Habsburg consort, Maria Josepha. From 1729, Zelenka assumed most of the musical responsibilities for the royal chapel. He died in Dresden in 1745.

Zelenka’s music was known and admired by his contemporaries, among them Georg Philipp Telemann and J.S. Bach, for its expressivity as well as its contrapuntal mastery. The Missa votiva (Votive Mass) in E minor, heard in its first Boston performance, was composed in 1739, toward the end of Zelenka’s career. It is a big, concerted multi-movement work scored for four-part chorus, two oboes and bassoon, strings, and organ, with sections for soloists as well as vocal quartet. The opening Kyrie, for chorus, is a fast movement in which lilting echo effects, galant style, give way to descending chromatic lines, culminating in a fugato section based on chromatic motives. For the Christe, soprano Karyl Ryczek stepped out from the chorus (a Cantata Singers tradition) to sing its operatic roulades with pure tone and utmost virtuosity. The second Kyrie, after a brief chordal opening, took us back to a shortened version of the opening section. The many-faceted Gloria got off perhaps a touch too fast, with a rousing orchestral introduction and a slightly tentative opening by the altos. Beginning with the “Laudaus te,” the sections for chorus and vocal quartet (sung from within the choir) were particularly effective, with Karyl Ryczek reappearing in the moving “Qui tollis,” this section concluding with a crunchingly dissonant chorus. In the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” Sumner Thompson’s ringing baritone sounded a trifle strained in the upper register, but had smoothed out completely during his later solos. The Gloria’s final “Cum Sancto Spiritu” was heard twice, first in restrained chordal style, then in a rousing fugal conclusion. The Credo brought yet another texture, with the words “Credo in unum Deum” intoned like a cantus firmus amid ornamental arabesques. Alto Lynn Torgove’s expressive “Et incarnatus est” was followed by a choral “Crucifixus” that employed a familiar Baroque minor mode fugal theme. The dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture lent solemnity to the Sanctus, while a joyful sprightliness returned in the final Dona nobis pacem.

For sheer energy and variety of expression, combined with real beauty, the Zelenka Missa votiva is a welcome addition to the repertory of concerted choral music. Hoose is to be congratulated for his willingness to explore the unfamiliar and he and the Cantata Singers, Ensemble, and soloists for their fine performance of this astonishing work. Juxtaposing the Zelenka Mass with a quirky Haydn symphony and Mozart’s hauntingly beautiful motet allowed us to experience 18th-century musical rhetoric in all its variety.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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