Zelenka: Sonatas ZWV 181

Collegium 1704
107:21 (2 CDs in a card triptych)

Rarely have I been so excited to receive a recording and equally disappointed by it. Let me state from the outset that this has nothing to do with the quality of the performances; as I have written many times before (as a quotation in the booklet neatly illustrates), Collegium 1704 are among my favourite performers of Zelenka’s extraordinary music. There is just one feature of these versions that I found initially distracting, then irksome and finally my ear became so obsessed with it that I had to reject the disc from my player… I have never been a professional continuo player, but I did study the art as part of my degree and I remember quite clearly being told by more than one teacher that I should “stay out of the way” of the more important obbligato lines. Similarly, that part of the function of the realising instrument was to fill out the chords so that the otherwise unheard dissonances and their necessary resolution was a key driving factor behind baroque music. On this recording, neither of these approaches is taken; the registration of the instrument is such that it regularly tinkles around (by which I mean “improvises clever counter-melodies”) above or among the oboes, and some of the chords are so lavishly spread (or hidden in a wild flourish of scales and arpeggios) that the third is so delayed that whatever dissonance there might have been has long since evaporated (as is the instrument’s wont), and (while I’m on a roll) some of the delay is so noticeable that it actually slows progress rather than the reverse. It may also be the case that the miking and/or balance of the recording just was not right, but I would have expected the musicians to have had something to say about that at the editing stage. There are also odd moments in several movements where it has been decided that the we should freeze as if suddenly caught in the middle of a game of musical statues; quite apart from the fact that there is no explanation for this in either Zelenka’s autograph scores or the booklet notes, how could musicians of the time have known from their part when someone else’s music dictated such an action? I am all for finding new things to say about familiar music, if as a result we are excited as if hearing it for the first time, but (sorry!) this just annoyed me, too – when the writing is so expansive, the “novelty” soon outstays its welcome. This is, of course, fabulous music, and these are great musicians; on this occasion, I’m afraid I just didn’t like the final result.

Brian Clark

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