Zelenka’s World

United StatesUnited States Zelenka, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi: Zelenka’s World: Gonzalo Ruiz (oboe), Kathryn Montoya (oboe, recorder), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Rob Nairn (violone),  Avi Stein (harpsichord), Charles Weaver (theorbo, Baroque guitar), Paul Hall, Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, New York, 23-9-2014 (SSM)

Zelenka: Sonata in F Major for two oboes, bassoon and continuo, ZWV 181, No. 5
Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903
Handel: Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 5
Bach: Sonata in C Major for oboe and continuo, after BWV 1035, arr. Ruiz
Vivaldi: Sonata in A Minor for recorder, bassoon and continuo, RV 86
Zelenka: Sonata in G Minor, ZWV 181, No. 2


Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are such huge figures that they have hidden a number of nearly-great composers in their shadows. We’ve heard of Telemann and Domenico Scarlatti, but there were many more composers, often associated with particular courts or parishes. For example, Christophe Graupner at the Darmstadt court, through the pioneer recordings of Geneviève Soly, has been revealed as a composer of substance with a signature sound that is beguiling and even mildly addictive. Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel at the court in Gotha was a prolific composer of over 1300 cantatas (most lost or incomplete) whose vocal and sacred music has elements that certainly stand up to Bach’s.

 Maybe these other composers will find their heyday in the future, but as for Zelenka, he has been and continues to be a cause for the Historical Performance department at the Juilliard School.  Zelenka’s third sonata from the ZWV 181 collection was performed back in January, 2014; and in November of 2013 his most famous work, Hipocondrie à 7 Concertanti, ZWV 187, was given an appropriately woozy reading. This October, Masaaki Suzuki will be performing Zelenka’s Missa Patris with Juilliard415 and the Yale Schola Cantorum.

Zelenka was born in Prague and was most closely associated with the city of Dresden, first as a violone player at court and then as a church composer. The Czech music of his youth never really left him, and his use of rustic, folksy dance rhythms imbues his work with a spirited jauntiness. Part of the reason Zelenka’s music hasn’t been performed much was that for some reason it was locked away in a Catholic church (Zelenka was a Lutheran). The other part is that his music is very demanding for musicians. Take the opening of the 5th Sonata from  ZWV 187 collection. Starting off à la Vivaldi with all instruments in unison, it suddenly spotlights the violone player with a run of several measures of 16th notes and 32nd notes, which are then given over note-by-note to the oboe. But what makes it sound uniquely Zelenkian is its out-of-balance themes. In addition, triplets are thrown in but not in any logical way. Rob Nairn deftly handled these difficult runs. The piece was a challenge to these players, who went beyond mere technical prowess into the core of the work.

The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a staple in the Bach repertory, is frequently given a dramatic interpretation whether performed on piano or harpsichord. This understanding of the work as heavy and emotional is perhaps based on its title. Even though an organ has not been specified, it falls into the category of organ works with similar names, the toccatas and fugues or fantasias and fugues. Ari Stein played the harpsichord as if it were a clavichord, expressive and sensitive to the touch. The chromatic pages were never pounded out, the fugues were never exaggerated.

Handel’s Op. 2 was not intentionally written for publication but had to be put out in the market to compete with plagiarized or stolen musical scores carrying Handel’s unauthorized name on their covers. Given the fact that Handel compiled the set in a way  that made it playable by the most common instruments, might belie this fact. Why else would he specify that the obligatto instruments are interchangeable? They can be played  by recorder, violin or oboe and continuo.  Unannounced for this performance was the introduction of a Baroque guitar as a substitute for the therobo, which did have a slight effect in lightening the work’s colors. Some borrowed passages, such as the 4th movement’s use of themes from Rinaldo, were recognizable.

Gonzalo Ruiz had to dig deep to come up with a transcription of Bach’s Flute Sonata BWV 1035 for oboe and continuo. Transposing it to C made it possible. If it was his intention to make the oboe sound like a flute, the smooth legatos of a flute never came through. We do know that Bach admired the D minor Oboe Concerto by Benedetto Marcello enough to transcribe it for keyboard. Bach never wrote an oboe sonata or concerto, so it’s nice to have one available for oboists. Mind you, this is a difficult and complex work in either format, and Ruiz is to be congratulated for bringing more Bach into the world even if it’s a surrogate.

The Vivaldi Sonata for recorder, bassoon and continuo waits for the second movement to put the bassoonist in the spotlight; although it was written for recorder and bassoon, it is the recorder that gets Vivaldi’s attention. The only problem in this performance was with tempos. Both largos were played like adagios or even andantes. This was especially true of the largo cantabile which was too fast to produce a singing quality and reduced the impact of the allegro molto conclusion.

Sonata No. 2 from ZWV 181 is in Zalenka’s typical style: an obsessive repetition of a 6-note motif supported by an unstable continuo in the first movement, and a demanding second movement with a fugue that appears from nowhere. With a fugue as complex as this in the second movement, one wonders what Zalenka will do to prevent the final movement from seeming anti-climatic. Following a slow movement, the allegro ending comes in with a fugal theme that never quite follows the rules. Though close to being a canon, it never quite gets there either.

All in all an adventurous recital, as we’ve come to expect of the Juilliard faculty.

Stan Metzger

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