You know you are going to hear unusual repertoire when the best-known composer on a program is Jan Dismas Zelenka. That's what happened yesterday at St. Alban's Church when Wondrous Machine gave a program titled "Bohemia ex Machina" featuring Zelenka, Vanhal, Tuma, Schmelzer and Kozeluch. Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), that is; not his cousin J. A. Kozeluch (1738-1814). Not a household word in the lot, but plenty of opportunities for a learning experience.
The program broke down neatly into two parts. Before intermission, the music was baroque, with Frantisek Tuma, Johann Schmelzer and Zelenka showing some charmingly quirky alternatives to the more familiar styles of Italy, France and Germany. After a fairly dull introduction, Tuma had several strongly rhythmic dance movements, offering a preview of the Bohemian folk flavor that would make Dvorak an international favorite in the 19th century.
Schmelzer's lament for the death of Emperor Ferdinand III has a naive charm. One wonders momentarily about the joyful final movement of this elegy, but it is done in a "life must go on" spirit; the composer describes the people's joy at the naming of a new emperor. Zelenka's Sonata II for two treble instruments, bassoon and continuo bubbles with color and vitality, as this composer's work so often does. A good selection of his instrumental music has been available for quite a while from Deutsche Grammophon, and his Requiem in C minor has made it to compact disc, but there seems to be still more good material waiting for attention.
Vanhal reportedly composed more than 100 symphonies that never get played anymore. He was also a cellist who used to play in string quartets with Mozart and Haydn, and that may explain why the cello part in his relentlessly cheerful Quartet for oboe and strings, Op. 7, No. 6, was more eventful than most of the other cello parts on the program. In this work as in the Zelenka, the superb oboe playing of Stanley King gave the music special distinction. Kozeluch's Sonata II for harpsichord, violin and cello had real charm but must have sounded quite old-fashioned by the time the composer died, well into Beethoven's middle period.
King's work stands out in Wondrous Machine's performances, but all the players are well versed in baroque style and accomplished on original instruments using the lower baroque pitch. A few problems of intonation and ensemble near the beginning were ironed out as the concert progressed.