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Reviews: Zelenka: The Capriccios - The Bach Sinfonia

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Reviews: 1

Review by steviev March 26, 2014 (4 of 4 found this review helpful)
This music is hilarious.

I'm going to assume that Zelenka knew what he was doing when he wrote stratospheric parts far above the comfortable range of valveless hunting horns in his Capriccios, high notes that would make a lot more sense on trumpets. I'm also going to assume that our present hornists are first-rate musicians who play their instruments about as well as anyone ever could. Thus, I can only conclude that Zelenka must have meant for his Capriccios to be occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

Putting aside the zany horn parts, this music is otherwise about as interesting and inspired as your average above-average suite by Telemann. In fact, their structures are similar to any number of other Baroque suites, with a longish ABA opening movement, sometimes fugal, followed by a series of dances and/or character pieces. All the suites are nominally in major, but there are plenty of minor-mode sections and movements sprinkled throughout. I'm not sure how each capriccio is scored, but the orchestra here is strings (7-2-2-1), two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord, and baroque guitar, the last two adding a light percussive impulse to the dance rhythms. The instruments are mostly replicas of Baroque-era specimens mixed in with some genuine antiques. Strings play in the usual curdled-milk HIP style sans vibrato.

But the two valveless hunting horns are the stars of the show, and when they play in their comfortable low range they sound no different from a modern valved horn. But where's the fun in that? So just for yucks Zelenka writes all the way out to the 24th harmonic so that, especially at the fast tempos hazarded here, pitch control gets real iffy. Over and over our hornists dip too low or fly just past their intended pitch, making everything sound hysterical and out of control. Even when they hit their notes square, the intonation of valveless horns way up in the stratosphere is comically pinched and nasal, similar to how your voice sounds after you huff some helium. Again and again I burst out in laughter as our poor hornists sometimes succeed and often fail to navigate Zelenka's sadistic gantlet.

I have another recording of Capriccios 1 and 5 on cpo, and that band takes every movement slower than the Bach Sinfonia. I'm sure this gives the horn players more time to find their pitch -- the cpo hornists definitely are more accurate, with better intonation. The cpo performance is not nearly as fun or energetic as the Sono Luminus, but some might prefer its cleaner playing.

Sono Luminus gives us an aggressive surround presentation, the photographs in the booklet mirroring the audible layout: violins and violas split antiphonally across the rear channels; cellos, bass, and continuo left-center; oboes and bassoon right-center; and both horns dead center, piled right on top of each other. I wish Sono Luminus would have separated the horns left and right a bit, the way BIS did in its recording of Brandenburg 1, so we could better hear the interplay between them -- a missed opportunity. The overall soundstage is deep, coherent, and enveloping, giving you the conductor's ear-view. Sound is close, detailed but not dry, with some reverb.

This disc is a blast, literally, and I hope the Bach Sinfonia and Sono Luminus will record the rest of Zelenka's orchestral works.

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