I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Zelenka Trio Sonatas

Back in January of '05, I formally reviewed this set of Zelenka Trio Sonatas which came out in 1999.

Heinz Holliger and colleagues record Trio Sonatas by Jan Dismas Zelenka for ECM New Series, (p) 1999. I remember in my early days of looking for baroque CDs seeing the Archiv release with Holliger of these Zelenka works; some 20+ years later, he records them again, without any strong desire to be historically accurate. I will speak to this later, which of course is an issue of mine I find most curious. When you listen to these works, they are complex. They aren't light commentaries above stock chord progressions; they are, in fact, masterworks that are so tightly woven as to almost scratch on the surface with a texture rough, and to coin the term, baroque. The collection here is includes double oboe trio sonatas, one for oboe and violin, and many of the works can also employ the larger double-reed, the bassoon. To understand why these works are different, you have to look somewhat into the life of the composer. He did things his own way, leading a life on the surface as an amateur composer. Telemann shunned a lot of formal learning himself, but turned out to be the toast of German states, being one of the most beloved and famous composers in the late Baroque. Today his contemporaries Handel and Bach eclipse him; he is now remembered for his prolific output, but most casual consumers of classical music couldn't name one important work by the man. Having had several years of musical training, and having met both performers, composers, and those somewhere in between, I have met folks with a very independent voice who ignored others who may point out that their ideas are extreme. I'm not sure Zelenka's music is exactly that way, but he turns phrases in directions we don't expect. He keeps lines going on for far longer than we might expect, and in so doing, challenges our performers in endurance and breath. I take it that this music must have sounded awfully raw on the original baroque instruments in baroque times. Mr. Holliger is considered by many as the foremost oboist in modern times... the fact that this music is recorded by him, and not others, should say something of the athleticism required by our soloists. Zelenka's rich ideas, combined with the expertise of master musicians, is what essentially we get on this 2-disc set. If you think you're baroqued-out with a couple CDs of Bach and Vivaldi each, I have to protest and say while Zelenka's music isn't totally foreign to the sound-worlds of these more prolific composers, his ideas are worth hearing. All the tempi for the 4-movement sonatas are well judged and serve the music well. A good set. Any problems? Yeah, that historically-authentic thing I alluded to earlier. Both our violinist and oboe soloists play in the modern style. On modern instruments. There's that sweetness of tone in the oboe that comes from a modern reed, instrument, and a waver in sound that we might want to call vibrato. I like the word sweetness better; the oboe under Holliger's fingers has a delicate edge that most baroque oboes do not; his tone is kind, classical, and smooth. The violin tone has a roundness about it that a baroque violin does not; vibrato is employed, and still, the music sounds great. Add in a harpsichord and strummed continuo, and then things get funky. First, the harpsichord employed doesn't sound terribly authentic, considering the "historic" sound we've expected now from soloists such as Christophe Rousset, Pierre Hantaî, or even Trevor Pinnock. Also, the harpsichord is dealt a "least important" card by being pushed to the back of the sound stage. Our big-name woodwind soloists are top-card. I feel recordings like these are half-sell-outs. "To be historically accurate, let's include semblances of something historically accurate: let's include bassoon as continuo, let's have a harpsichord, and hey.. maybe a big bass lute." Yet, while this to me is all good, the all-bad part is that the instruments employed are outside the realm of baroqueness. We know what baroque oboes were like; we have specialists the world-over making them today. Paul Goodwin plays one, and he sounds good on it. But this is Holliger's record, not his. I would have enjoyed the release more if it had not employed this pseudo-historical angle by including the clangy harpsichord in the background. I think Zelenka's music fairs better without the overly-sweet oboe sound, without the vibrato in the violin... I say, let's do it all or nothing. The compromise is far less satisfying. The musicians employed here are far too good for this lackluster compromise; the music is too rich to not enjoy... With that said, this release may be a disappointment for fans of historically-informed (and practiced) performances. Yet, if we can let our minds only imagine the soloists alone, they do play strikingly well, and the music, well, that too, is rich like varied colors in an expertly-woven tapestry. Excellent recorded sound, save for the harpsichord.

Bach Overtures

Violin Sonatas - Kremsier Archive