Encore: Easter music from the Czech Republic

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In a special Easter programme from Radio Prague we bring you some Czech Easter oratorios from the eighteenth century, and also something we don't often hear on the programme - traditional Easter bells from the famous Manousek bell foundry near Prague.

A typical Easter genre from the Baroque period is the "oratorio". This is an extended composition on a sacred text, usually with dramatic elements, for chorus, orchestra and soloists. Handel's Messiah is a famous example, originally intended to be performed at Easter.

Baroque oratorios have texts based in the scriptures, but often including extra characters for dramatic reasons. An example is Jan Dismas Zelenka's 'Il Serpento di Bronzo', or the Bronze Serpent, the story of Moses in the desert raising the bronze serpent to redeem the sinners who had turned from God, the serpent being interpreted as a foreshadowing of the cross. To fill out the plot the librettist added some characters called Egla, Namuel and Azariah. They serve as the voices of ordinary Israelites.

As is often the case, this oratorio is in Italian. This was the fashion - Italian opera was the rage then, and oratorios tend to be written in the prevailing operatic style of a period. Also, the court poet in the Saxon court at Dresden, where Zelenka spent his entire career, was Italian.

Zelenka was born in 1679, a few years before Bach, and went to school in Prague. At the age of 30 accepted the post in Dresden, and died there in 1745.

Jan Dismas Zelenka's Easter oratorio "The Bronze Serpent" is available on a new CD on the Niburu label, performed by the Ensemble Inégal, led by Adam Viktoria.

Another Easter oratorio, also intended for Good Friday, is by Frantisek Xaver Brixi. This is his oratorio Judas Iscariot, which tells the story of Judas, the betrayer of Christ, and his suicide after the crucifixion. And it is rather grim at times. It is a less ambitious work than the Zelenka. It is basically a series of recitatives and arias for soloists, framed by an orchestral introduction and choral finale.

Judas here is confronted by three allegorical characters - Justice, sung by a bass, Death, alto, and Hope, soprano. And as in Mozart's Don Giovanni, where the role of the stern Commendatore is sung by a bass, here Justice sounds implacable and certainly not to be questioned.

To add a few more biographical details, Brixi was born in 1732, a couple of generations after Zelenka, and was quite prominent in his day. He was the organist and choirmaster at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, which was an important position. This piece, which is also based on the Italian model, was probably written in about 1760.

Frantisek Xaver Brixi's oratorio Judas Iscariot, is also available on a new CD featuring the Musica Bohemica ensemble led by Jaroslav Krcek, on the Supraphon label.


CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur