It's always a much anticipated event when a work by Jan Dismas Zelenka is performed in Paris. The rare performances of this exquisite and unjustifiably forgotten Baroque composer, so admired by J.S. Bach, make them even more intriguing and exceptional. While it’s impossible to select a Zelenka piece which is not simply a masterpiece, the French conductor, Ms. Laurence Equilbey, opted to start the concert in Salle Pleyel with Miserere in C minor ZWV 57, one of Zelenka’s most dramatic and profound works.

Accentus © Jana Jocif
Accentus
© Jana Jocif

The short (15 minutes) sacred piece immediately surprises with the ecstatic, contemporary tone of its first movement Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. By the depth of this highly contrasted and innovative piece, one can see why Zelenka was so influential among his contemporaries.

Born in today’s Czech Republic and trained in Vienna, Zelenka wrote church music during his thirty years service in Dresden, but his work was mysteriously forgotten for almost two hundred years. A Miserere is usually sung before the Passion and the Redemption in Catholic liturgical services, and is meant to underline the sense of growing despair that comes from the absence of any anticipation of cathartic final salvation.

Although Zelenka’s dramatic writing and heavy, slower tempi are wholly appropriate, what most moved the Salle Pleyel audience was not just the spiritual character of the liturgical piece, but the astonishing fervour and emotional power that Equilbey drew from Zelenka’s work by emphasizing its dramatic architecture through fast tempi and carefully chosen accents.

With the brilliant chamber choir Accentus and the recently formed period orchestra Insula behind her, Equilbey knows how to immediately captivate and move the modern listener even in the vast and sometimes difficult acoustic Salle Pleyel. The Gloria Patri was conveyed by soprano Sandrine Piau, fortunately placed to the front of the orchestra, supported by the chorus with their palpable focus on the most exacting standards.

The only quibble that can be admitted is that Zelenka’s contribution to the evening was too short. Without leaving time for an interval, Equilbey opted to continue the concert with a much more known sacred work: Mozart’s iconic, unfinished, funeral mass Requiem, composed 53 years after Zelenka’s Miserere.  

Equilbey delivered subtle, sober Mozart without the usual romantic gild, especially in the Lacrimosa, which she conducted through its entirety and focused more on its nuances than its sharp contrasts. She brought out the delicate harmony between soloists, choir and orchestra and succeeded brilliantly not falling into the trap of unmeasured expressiveness and overused crescendos.

Although Equilbey liberated the Requiem from the heavy burden of its masterpiece status, I wish the four soloists had been more audible given the limited sound projection in Salle Pleyel and were placed in front of the orchestra and not behind.

The English bass-baritone Christopher Purves’ Tuba mirum was soft-shaped and bright, as was the excellent Mors stupebit et natura performed by German tenor Werner Güra. The depth of Italian contralto Sara Mingardo’s warm timbre was as moving as always. Equilbey's emphatic gesticulations were pertinent to the music, closely followed by each and every member of the orchestra and choir.

The Confutatis and Lux Aeterna from Mozart's Requiem were the highlights of the evening and enchanted the audience as much as the first movement of Zelenka's Miserere. The whole diptych concert was unusually short (without any interval), but still ended with a satisfied audience granting the conductor, orchestra and choir long, well-deserved applause.