Classical: Hear and believe
It's two centuries late, but the UK premiere of a Requiem by Jan Dismas Zelenka is some event.
Friday 19 November 1999
Few people outside his native Czech Republic or the band of early-music enthusiasts are familiar with the exotic name of Jan Dismas Zelenka, the Bohemian-born composer whose Requiem in C minor is to be unveiled at two concerts in the historic surroundings of Stationers' Hall next Saturday and Sunday (27 and 28 Nov). But it is true to say that once his music is heard, it is difficult to forget.
Certainly, the all-too-rare opportunity to sing one of Zelenka's delightful works has coaxed one of Britain's best-loved counter-tenors, James Bowman, to lend his voice to the event. "I had been asked many times before to take part in the Ceciliatide Festival, but I'd never found myself free of other commitments. The magic name this time around was Zelenka: you could say I was bribed with the piece," says Bowman, who has just turned 58.
So what is it about Zelenka's music that so attracted him? "He's a very neglected composer, but he's marvelously musical, with fluid, limpid lines. And he's a wonderful melodist. Where some of his contemporaries and rivals, such as Johann Hasse, rather churn it out, Zelenka is more original - and certainly more enjoyable to sing. His vocal lines flow easily off the tongue; it's easy, but very satisfying, both for singer and audience."
It is the immediacy of that impact which makes Zelenka's neglect all the more regrettable. Like so many "lesser" composers of his age, he has suffered from comparison with Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, but he belongs to a vibrant and highly imaginative Central European Baroque tradition with which modern audiences are only just beginning to become familiar.
He was born in the Bohemian town of Lounovice in 1679 and, after years of apprenticeship, by 1710 he was employed as a double-bass player in the royal orchestra at Dresden. And there, apart from a short but fruitful spell in Venice, a trip to Prague and two visits to Vienna, he remained until he died in 1745.
At the time, the city was one of Europe's leading cultural centres. Its music-loving prince, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, ensured that not only was the royal orchestra one of the finest of the age (its praises were sung by Jean-Jacques Rousseau), but that there was a steady stream of commissions for works from his highly talented court composers to keep it busy. As Vice- Kappelmeister, Zelenka was second only in the court's musical hierarchy to Johann Heinichen, and on the latter's death in 1733 expected to get his position. But the post went to Hasse, 20 years his junior - a disappointment from which Zelenka never recovered.
Whereas Zelenka's highly individual orchestral music and, more particularly, his Trio Sonatas - with their exacting virtuosity and often bizarre rhythmic peculiarities - are fairly well established, his choral works have received much less exposure.
Of them, the most famous are the self-assured and beautiful Lamentations of Jeremiah, but there is also the full range of works which one would expect a composer of the period to produce: Masses, Glorias, cantatas, responses et al. Written for the court chapel, none is scored on the scale of Bach's more grandiose pieces, but they use their economy of means with a richness of invention that is the work of a true master.
All of this made Zelenka a natural choice for Penelope Rapson, the artistic director of the St Ceciliatide Festival and conductor of the period-instrument band Fiori Musicali which is giving the Requiem its British premiere. "I have Czech roots and thought that Zelenka was worth more of an airing than he gets. And there's a long tradition of concerts in the Stationers' Hall, which dates back to 1683. It's where Purcell performed, and where his Ode for St Cecilia's Day was first heard. So a Zelenka premiere fits in very well with that tradition.
"The Requiem has a quite extraordinary quality: hearing it, it's as if you knew it already," she says. "But the Miserere that we're also performing is perhaps even more striking - a remarkable piece that has a great surprise up its sleeve. But you'll have to get to come to find out what it is."
James Bowman will be joining Fiori Musicali for two performances of Zelenka's Requiem and Miserere on 27 and 28 Nov in Stationers' Hall, London (01327 361380), 6.30pm for 7pm. Tickets include drinks and canapes
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