First revived in the 1970s, Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka was once touted as the Arcimboldo of music owing to the bizarre twists and turns of his instrumental music, which accounts for only a tiny part of his output. While this was effective marketing and won him a certain avant-garde cachet, the vast majority of Zelenka's music is of the sacred vocal variety, and overall it is probably more useful to view him as a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach able to pursue professionally what the proudly Lutheran Bach could only do vicariously: compose Catholic service music. In the case of Zelenka's "Missa ultimae" ZWV 19-21, he composed three masses in the same vicarious manner as Bach with his great Mass in B minor; these works, intended to number six rather than three but left incomplete by Zelenka, were not intended for services but as art music. On Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's Jan Dismas Zelenka: Missa dei Filii, soloists Nancy Argenta, Michael Chance, Christoph Prégardien, and Gordon Jones with the Kammerchor Stuttgart under Frieder Bernius and Tafelmusik with Jeanne Lamon sensitively perform the second of these masses, consisting only of a Kyrie and Gloria.
Despite the change of venue, Zelenka's music remains highly original here, even comparable to that of Bach except that it is neither as busy or as ornate, though it remains just as harmonically rich and skillful in its projection of the text -- check out the subtle rhythmic drive and harmonic color of "Qui sedes ad dextaram Patris." The Litaniae Laurentanae "Salus infirmorum," unlike the "Missa ultimae," was written in 1744 to be performed when Electress Maria Josepha of Austria had just recovered from an extended illness -- it was one of Zelenka's very last works. Electress Maria Josepha must have appreciated Zelenka's musical get-well card, as when he died in 1745 she purchased his entire manuscript collection, preserving it intact for posterity. Too bad someone didn't do that for Bach!
This Deutsche Harmonia Mundi effort was made in 1989, concurrently with the first publication of Litaniae Laurentanae "Salus infirmorum." Recorded at the Reutlingen Evangelical Church in Gönningen, the recording is a little quiet, though very easy to listen to. About the only negative thing one can say about the performance is that there are tiny lapses of coordination among the members of the Kammerchor Stuttgart here and there, and these are momentary. This is not too surprising, as Zelenka's music is so unfamiliar; one thing about Bach is that you can always tell where he is going, not so with Zelenka. Enthusiasts of Zelenka's music should consider Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's Jan Dismas Zelenka: Missa dei Filii a must; others more generally interested in the sacred choral music of the German Baroque will find it an interesting and pleasing byway.