The Missa Votiva, ZWV 18, of Czech-German composer Jan Dismas Zelenka was written in 1739, late in Zelenka's life. It has something in common with the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, of Beethoven: both are late works written as prayers of thanksgiving after their respective composers' recovery from serious illness. And, although the Zelenka work is virtually unknown, both are staggering masterpieces. The more Zelenka's music surfaces, the more he appears a major composer of the late Baroque; he was probably ignored for so long because his life story, during eras when audiences loved to have biographies on which to hang music, is largely obscure. This fine recording, by the Czech groups Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 under Václav Luks on the French label Zig-Zag Territoires, is all the more impressive in that Baroque sacred music was rare, and historically informed performance unknown, in the Czech Republic 15 years ago, both having been frowned upon by Czechoslovakia's Communist regime. The form of Zelenka's mass is borrowed from the sumptuous masses of southern Italy in the early eighteenth century, with each of the five major divisions of the mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) subdivided into individual numbers in the manner of an opera. Zelenka's realization of the form, however, is uniquely diverse. The parade of events in the mass is gripping, for the text has rarely been set so personally and vividly. Zelenka sets many of the arias in the galant operatic style of the day, with syncopations and orchestral effects, but these are exquisitely balanced with evocations of the antique. A piece of chant, as yet unidentified, weaves its way through the Credo, and Zelenka takes off in several different ways from a descending chromatic figure, tracing a fourth, that could have come from the polyphony of the early seventeenth century. There are several big fugues, and not where you expect them; one sets the "Crucifixus" text, and it leads into an extremely dramatic setting, alternating fast and slow passages, of the remainder of the Credo. Several of the arias are lovely, and the largely unknown Czech soloists are uniformly good; soprano Stanislava Mihalcová, heard in the Benedictus (track 17) is a standout. There are several instances of the pungent harmonies for which Zelenka's chamber music is known, each deployed with unerring timing. The rendition of the work's beauties must conclude here, although the list is by no means complete, with the rounding of the form in the "Dona nobis pacem" with the opening Kyrie music, one of the many forward-looking traits in a piece written by a 60-year-old composer. The only source of complaint here is rather boxy sound and some noise between movements from the performers, but the latter only emphasizes what must have been considerable excitement on the musicians' part. The Missa votiva is nothing less than a lost masterpiece, strongly recommended for your discovery. Booklet texts are in French and English.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Missa Votiva for soloists, chorus, instruments & continuo in E minor, ZWV 18|