Georg Philipp Telemann, it would appear, was not the only intriguing contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti to have been virtually forgotten for two centuries and only in our time "rediscovered." Another was Jan Dismas Zelenka, four of whose six Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae , recorded in Prague under Milan Munclinger, were issued on Nonesuch a few years ago (H-71282), and whose orchestral works-all of them, apparently-have been recorded now by the Camerata Bern under Alexander van Wijnkoop in a three-disc set in Deutsche Grammophon's Archiv series (2710.026; cassettes 3376.014).
Dietmar Polaczek's article on the composer in the annotative booklet is titled "Jan Dismas Zelenka, Mysterious and Glorious." The latter adjective may be a bit overstated, but mysterious this figure surely was, and in more ways than one.He was born near Prague in 1679 (two years before Telemann) and died in Dresden in 1745 (five years before Bach), having spent the last 35 years of his life in the Saxon capital, except the four years 1715-17198 during which he studied with Fux in Vienna and traveled in Italy. While he was frustrated in his ambition for a major court position, he was well regarded by his colleagues, specifically including Bach, who was honorary Church Composer in Dresden during the years Zelenka held that title officially.
For a man as active and as well known as Zelenka was in his time, it is astounding that we know so little about him-absolutely nothing of his personal life. The 16-page booklet with the recordings contains portraits of many of his contemporaries, but none of Zelenka himself: If ever he had a portrait made, it has not survived. Added to this mystery about Zelenka the man is a good deal he put into his work, in the form of cryptograms and chronograms, many of which defy solution to this day.
There are nine works in this orchestral collection: a Concerto a 8 concertanti in G major, an Ouverture a 7 concertanti in F, a Sinfonia a 8 concertanti in A minor, a curiously titled Hipocondrie a 7 concertanti in A major (the shortest of the nine works, in form a French overturn), and five items bearing the title Capriccio , which are not the short pieces one might expect from the title, but extended suites.
It was customary in Zelenka's time to present instrumental works in groups of six or 12, but there are only five capriccios. They range in layout from four movements to seven, most of the movements being dance forms but some given descriptive titles and some headed only by tempo markings. A vividly descriptive piece called Il furibondo ("The Raging Man"), Capriccio V is preceded by a contrastingly expansive one called Il contento .
There are movements called Paysan and Villanella which use forms and material from folk music, a source that intrigued Zelenka as it did Telemann, many of whose other predilections are reflected here-the French overturn, the German fugue, traits of the Italian solo concerto. Zelenka, in fact, might be regarded as a sort of Bohemian Telemann: a creator of music notable for its color, its vivacity, its generally ingratiating qualities, in contrast to the more learned style of some other contemporaries. He shows a closer kinship with Bach than Telemann did, perhaps, but a closer one still with Telemann himself.
The Sinfonia, Concerto and Ouverture really have nothing to distinguish them from the capriccios except the titles. All these works have their little surprises and all of them have concertante parts, which are brilliantly played by such distinguished performers as Heinz Holliger, oboe, Barry Tuckwell and Robert Routch, horns (on which instrument, according to Polaczek, no other composer made such demands before Richard Strauss), Manfred Sax, bassoon, Christiane Jacottet, harpischord, and Wijnkoop himself as solo violinist. If the mysterious Zelenka wasn't quite "glorious," the treatment he receives here definitely is, and the charm of this imaginative, individualistic, eminently likeable music does not seem to fade with familiarity.