Concerto à 8 concertanti, ZWV 186
Jan Dismas Zelenka
The Bohemian Jan Dismas Zelenka came to the Dresden court of Friedrich Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, in 1710 and remained a court employee until his death 35 years later, despite what he must have seen as a lack of appreciation by the powers that were. The court employed some of the most illustrious musical talent of the day, including composers who brought French and Italian styles with them. (The pantheon even included, in a marginal way, J.S. Bach. In 1736 he became the Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, but this title carried no duties and no remuneration. Dresden and Bach were using each other to enhance one another’s prestige – and, Bach hoped, his political clout at home in Leipzig – something Bach was quite open about. Bach, by the way, liked Zelenka’s music.) For more than 20 years, Zelenka’s job title was double-bass player in the court orchestra. He was listed as “Contra Basso & Compositeur” in 1732 and “church composer” in 1735, but never succeeded in his ambition of becoming Capellmeister.
His G-major Concerto, which dates from 1723, has the feel of an experiment in instrumental combinations, a bit like the “Brandenburg” Concertos Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg two years earlier. In the first movement, the oboe steps out of the Vivaldian tutti for just long enough to make it appear that we have an oboe concerto on our hands, before the violin steps to the front as well. In the weightier E-minor slow movement, which sounds more like Bach than Vivaldi, the bassoon and cello join the violin and oboe as soloists while the rest of the ensemble recedes into the background until the movement’s emotionally wrought climax. The last movement is in the sort of international cosmopolitan style that became a hallmark of German musical progressivism in that age.
-- Notes by Howard Posner