Zelenka: Responsoria pro Hebdomada Sancta

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Scene
WORKS: Responsoria pro Hebdomada Sancta
PERFORMER: Capella Montana/Ludwig Gossner
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 605 0964-2
During the very same Holy Week, 1723, that Bach first performed the St John Passion, his contemporary Zelenka provided 27 responsories for the Catholic court, 70 miles away in Dresden. The two approaches could hardly differ more, Bach’s in modern, operatically inspired drama – narrative recitative, crowd choruses and reflective arias and chorales – Zelenka’s through the severe tradition of Palestrinian ‘stile antico’. He too draws on gospel text, mostly from St Matthew, but the emotional impact, at least of the capture and trial of Jesus, is restrained, the textures in constant counterpoint, made denser by supporting low strings and trombones. Yet the drama of Good Friday – the despair of the Cross, the rending of the veil of the temple – penetrates Zelenka’s reserved style, while the darkness before Jesus’s death generates disturbingly impenetrable harmony. The final responsories for Easter Saturday describe the sealing of the tomb in slowly shifting chords which fall away to stillness, awaiting the dawn of Easter Day.


Some beautifully opaque sound from a solo ensemble comes as a relief from the relentlessly forte choir; with instruments doubling, two dozen voices sound like more. They reveal, though, the contrapuntal skill and harmonic invention which evoked widespread admiration from Zelenka’s contemporaries. Despite the liner’s claim, the Latin text is translated only into German: a handy Bible will resolve anything unclear. George Pratt