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Zelenka is probably the greatest Baroque bassist you never heard of – but then, how many Baroque bassists have you heard of? Little is known of his early life as the son of a parish organist in a small village southeast of Prague. He does not enter history firmly until his move to Dresden in 1710, where he was hired to play the violone (the bass viol ancestor of the modern orchestral bass) in the famous Hofkapelle, then one of the leading musical establishments in Europe. He was successful enough to earn a paid leave to study in Vienna and Italy for several years, beginning in 1716, when he was already 36 years old. His studies bore obvious fruit, for on his return to Dresden he became a prolific composer of sacred choral music, although at a court obsessed with opera he never gained the highest titles or salaries.
He did compose a relatively small body of instrumental music, including six trio sonatas written about the time of his travels south. These works are for two oboes (with violin and/or flute as alternatives), bassoon, and continuo (the Baroque equivalent of a band’s rhythm section, usually a keyboard and bass instrument in tandem).
The Sonata No. 2 is in the four-movement form of the Italian sonata da chiesa, like four other sonatas in the set. It opens with an ornate, passionate slow movement, lit with expressive harmonic touches and filled with all the power and pathos of J.S. Bach, to whom Zelenka is now often compared. It ends with a little cadenza that sets up the ensuing movement, a brisk, skillfully elaborated fugue. In the major mode, the third movement is a place of arching, lyrical repose, though with its own darker intimations midway through. Like the first movement, it functions as a prelude to the following Allegro, a serious, driving finale teased with triplet interjections. The extravagant virtuosity of the writing throughout testifies to the caliber of musicians in Dresden.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.