Tuesday night’s performance was presented by Bury Court Opera, a company that stages operas that are produced and performed by young professional singers, designers and directors in the early stages of their careers. However, it wasn’t just the performers but also the much-neglected headline composer who was getting a career boost.

Julian Perkins © Andy Craggs
Julian Perkins
© Andy Craggs

Jan Dismas Zelenka was described by his contemporaries as a ‘reserved, bigoted Catholic but also a respectable, quiet unassuming man, dseserving the greatest respect’. Born in Prague, in 1679, six years before Bach, Zelenka’s music has faded into obscurity despite the fact he was held in high esteem by his contemporaries including Bach himself and Telemann. His music is highly original, sharing Bach’s vivid expression of text and infusion of French and Italian styles, replete with bold juxtapositions of major and minor modes, striking rhythmic patterns and emotionally charged chains of suspensions. The musicians of chamber ensemble Spiritato! and the amateur Bart’s Chamber Choir, joined by two young soloists, proved tremendous advocates for this thrilling repertoire.

The concert opened with a brief and bold trumpet fanfare, followed by a selection of arias, framed by the opening and closing chorus, from Zelenka’s one-act oratorio Il Serpente di Bronzo. Although the concert was titled ‘The Bohemian Bach’, this music felt far more Handelian, stately yet vigorous. Countertenor Magrid El Bushra was a persuasive soloist with a promising warmth to his tone.

The standout performer of the evening however was soprano Augusta Hebbert, a last-minute stand in, who performed two wonderful arias from Zelenka’s Serenata Il Diamante, composed in 1737 for the wedding of Prince Georg Igantius Lubomirski. Hebbert is a captivating performer who seems totally at one with the text and gave a real sense of characterisation to her performance. Rapid runs were sung with clarity and evenness, and there was no tightness or insecurity in Hebbert’s upper range. This was very impressive, but even more so was the range of dynamics and expression that Hebbert packed into these two arias.

In a nice piece of programming, these two vocal excerpts were separated by one of Zelenka’s Trio Sonatas (no. 3 in B flat), following the typical church sonata structure of four movements – slow-fast-slow-fast – and scored for violin, oboe, bassoon and continuo. While Baroque chamber music can sometimes seem a little unoriginal and repetitive (it is generally agreed that the output of Zelenka’s incredibly prolific contemporary Telemann is very mixed in quality), this piece stood out as particularly special. The counterpoint was ingenious and the faster movements were almost overwhelming in their relentless inventiveness and originality. Bassoonist Inga Klaucke fully deserved the spontaneous applause that broke out following the second movement after what must have been over five minutes of unrelenting semiquavers.

The Bach Cantata that closed the first half (no. 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft) was performed well, although splitting the choir into two four-part choruses felt like a stretch of resources, and the complex lines did not always sound out over the ensemble, particularly due to the heavy orchestration that included three trumpets, three oboes and timpani.

After a surprise opening to the second half with the Trumpet Fanfare suddenly sounding from the back of the church, the choir performed Zelenka’s Missa dei Filii. Once again, this work was a great example of Zelenka’s originality. It consists of only the Kyrie and Gloria. Some view this work as incomplete, however it is generally agreed that it was conceived as a two-movement missa brevis. However, this description does nothing to hint of its structure, containing as it does an incredibly vast setting of the Gloria comparably only in scale with Bach’s Mass in B Minor. As a piece, it demonstrates again how Zelenka, like Bach, was adept at stylistic pluralism, fusing together many different and seemingly competing musical languages. At times this mass seems to look forward to the classical era with its symphonic proportions, but it also contains music that is unspeakably of the high baroque.

Like all the pieces on the programme, it is a work of considerably virtuosity and conductor Julian Perkins conducted with clarity, keeping the ensembles together and shaping the work effectively. Barts Chamber Choir did a wonderful job for an amateur ensemble in this challenging work. The balance between orchestra and choir was not always perfect, occasionally the choir sounded as they were standing further away than they actually were, but overall it was a very convincing performance, supplemented with excellent solo work from the two soloists and two members of the choir, Justin Althaus and Tim Jones. In short, it was inspiring to hear such an inventive programme, from a young, up-and-coming ensemble who will certainly continue to make their mark.

****1