Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1748) is not a household name. A Bohemian composer and virtuoso violone (double-bass) player, he spent most of his professional life as violone player and Kapellmeister in Dresden at the court of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
As a composer, Zelenka had a late start–around age 40–and only limited success. While he wrote many religious works, the court did not allow their publication, probably in order to retain its exclusive rights. He wrote only a few instrumental works, of which these trio sonatas, probably composed in 1721-22, are the primary example.
Trio sonatas were a staple of Baroque composers, and mostly served as genteel background music for dinners and aristocratic chatter. But like those of his contemporary, J.S. Bach, most of Zelenka’s six definitely do not fit this bill. They frequently use Bohemian folk rhythms, are complex, and are often very aggressive with large dynamic leaps and technically challenging–to say nothing of the unusual instrument soloist combination of two oboes (oboe and violin in No. 4) and bassoon with bass accompaniment. Five follow the traditional four-movement style and pattern (slow-fast-slow-fast), but No. 5, a three-movement work modeled after the Italian concerto grosso, is a wild exception and will make your ears perk up–this piece alone is worth the set.
This CD set features Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, oboes; Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Klaus Thunemann, bassoon; Klaus Stoll, double bass; Jonathan Rubin, lute; and Christiane Jaccottet, harpsichord.
Holliger has recorded these sonatas with many of the same performers once before, in 1972. He has lost none of his technical skill, but his approach is lighter, making the rhythms of folk music sparkle. The harpsichord in this recording is clearer and better balanced. The sound is superb.
One minor gripe: The CD box cover is an uninspiring gray on gray. It is still better than that on the old recording, which is of a bizarre head made of vegetables.