Music from 18th-Century Prague – works by Zelenka, Tůma & Orschler / Collegium 1704

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A recent release in Supraphon's Music from eighteenth-century Prague series, this CD is subtitled Bohemian Disciples of Johann Joseph Fux. The music of Fux (1660-1741) does not appear on the disc at all. What these pieces have in common is that each of the three composers, František Ignác Antonín Tůma (1704-1774), Johann George Orschler (1698-1770) and Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) were all students of Fux. They are also part of a long line of composers stretching from Palestrina through Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, veritably even to our present time in the music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, who wrote in the stile antico Fux describes in his great treatise on counterpoint and compositional technique, Gradus ad Parnassum.

Stile antico (literally "ancient style") was (and is) a compositional approach based upon historic models of the late Renaissance, most ideally illustrated in the music of Palestrina. Fux's method book was studied throughout Europe. The objective of the work is succinctly described by Václav Kapsa in the album notes "to teach students of composition how to distinguish between the essential and the non-essential, between rules and freedom, between that which remains and that which changes." The core of the book deals with the theory of counterpoint.

Counter to stile antico is stile moderno, where more elaborate homophonic textures, lavish ornamentation and a freer use of dissonance was permitted. Another influence of this time was the nascent Rococo period with its emerging Gallant style. All of these influences are skillfully blended in the intriguing music of these three composers.

Roughly half of the music here is appearing as world premiere recordings. The Tůma work is his beautiful Stabat Mater in G minor. We have the two brief opening sections from this work among our album samples. The Tůma work is followed by Orschler's Sonata in F for two violins and basso continuo. In this rhythmically and harmonically interesting trio sonata, Collegium 1704 employs a positive organ (a small one-manual pipe organ) in the basso continuo part. From Zelenka we have two Sanctus et Agnus Dei settings and three settings of the prayer Sub tuum praesidium, one of which is included as a third album sample.

For this album, Collegium Vocale 1704 is made up of a quartet of solo singers (satb) and the period instrument ensemble Collegium 1704 is comprised of violin, cello and bass with organ and theorba. Václav Luks, founder of these groups, directs the performances and plays the organ. It's a fascinating album that I have enjoyed many times, even before discovering the interesting music history lessons it includes. It all boils down to some beautiful and moving music, finely textured and superbly performed by Collegium 1704.

Not included on this album, but nevertheless listen to the full Collegium 1704 perform Zelenka's Missa Divi Xaverii ZWV 12