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Johann Heinrich ROLLE (1716 - 1785): St Matthew Passion

Ana-Marija Brkic, soprano; Sophie Harmsen, mezzo-soprano; Georg Poplutz (Evangelist), Joachim Streckfuß, tenor; Thilo Dahlmann (Jesus), bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Nov 18 - 20, 2015, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk
CPO - 555 046-2 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.39'07")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[ripienists] Claudia Ehemann, soprano; Dominique Aline Bilitza, contralto; George Pooley, tenor; Raimonds Spogis, bass

The Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach are performed across the world, especially during Passiontide. They are also available in many recordings. However, there are many more compositions of that kind to choose from, and some of them have been released in the last twenty years or so. Among the composers are the likes of Georg Philipp Telemann, Georg Gebel and, more recently, Gottfried August Homilius. The latter belongs to the generation of the Bach sons and the same goes for Johann Heinrich Rolle, the composer of the St Matthew Passion which Michael Alexander Willens recorded for CPO.

Rolle was born in Quedlinburg as the son of the town music director. In 1721 the family moved to Magdeburg where Rolle's father became Kantor of the Old Town Latin School which Johann Heinrich also was to attend. In 1737 he went to Leipzig to study law and it is assumed that at this time he participated in performances of Bach's Collegium Musicum. By 1741 he entered the court orchestra of Frederick the Great in Berlin as a violinist. This brought him into contact with some of the major composers of the time, such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the brothers Graun and Benda. He left Berlin for Magdeburg in 1746 as he had been appointed organist of St John's, the town's principal church. In 1751 his father died and he succeeded him as Kantor of the Old Town Latin School; he held this position until his death. It is also in this capacity that he composed most of his sacred works, among them many cantatas and motets. His fame was mainly based on his musical dramas, a mixture of opera and oratorio: the subjects were largely biblical, but many scores include stage directions. When Telemann died in 1767 both he and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach applied for the post of Musikdirektor of Hamburg; the latter was selected with a majority of just one vote. This shows that Rolle was held in high esteem.

The performing of large-scale Passions was tradition in the Lutheran part of Germany. It was part of the duties of any Kantor to compose a Passion. Telemann, in his capacity as Musikdirektor in Hamburg, had to write a different Passion every year, on the text of one of the four Gospels in a four-year order. In comparison Rolle had a much easier task: in Magdeburg it was common practice to perform a Passion four years in a row; only then a new Passion was required. Rolle composed eight Passions in total, in both categories: four oratorio Passions and four Passion oratorios. The difference is that in the former the text of one of the Gospels is in the centre, to which texts in free poetry are added, whereas in the latter the text is mostly a free paraphrase of the Gospels and several characters are included, either from the Gospels (John, Peter, Mary) or allegorical.

Only two of the oratorio passions by Rolle have survived and the St Matthew Passion recorded here is one of them. The text of the Gospel is sung by the Evangelist, a role traditionally allocated to a tenor. The words of the various characters in the story are also performed in the form of recitatives: Jesus, Pilate and the high priests are sung by a bass, but - in contrast to most Passions, for instance those of Bach - the role of Peter is sung by a tenor and the role of Judas by a soprano. Most recitatives, including the words of Christ, are accompanied by basso continuo alone. Only at some very dramatic moments the recitatives are accompanied by strings.

Strictly speaking this is an oratorio Passion, like those of Bach. But Rolle includes some elements of the Passion oratorio. One of them is the introduction of characters, either historical or allegorical, who do not appear in Matthew's gospel. After the opening chorus we get an accompanied recitative which is put into the mouth of a Sulamite, who in tradition is the girl from the Book of Solomon. She addresses the audience and urges them: "Come, honour the highest goodness! Give your hearts to him; he has bequeathed his flesh and blood in his testament". This is followed by a 'chorus of the faithful souls'. Number 14 is a terzetto of soprano, tenor and bass who represent a Sinner, Moses and Jesus respectively and towards the end (No. 35; CD 2, track 11) we get a duet of Love (soprano) and Devotion (alto). A second feature of Passion oratorios is the fact that some of the arias are quite operatic; that goes in particular for the bass aria 'Verräter! Ach, wohin?' whose A part has the character of a rage aria. Although this Passion is not formally divided into sections Rolle seems to have structured it in several scenes which end with a piece on a free poetic text. We probably see here the traces of Rolle's biblical musical dramas.

This Passion has come down to us in a copy which is dated 1748; it was probably written that same year. This was the time that the oratorio Passion was in the process of being overshadowed by the Passion oratorio. In that respect it is somewhat old-fashioned. That said, it includes several modern elements as I have indicated above and stylistically it is certainly in line with the time of writing. The chorales don't have quite the weight of those we know from Bach's Passions; harmonically they are not adventurous and more of a contemplative nature than dramatic as Bach's chorales often are. Stylistically they reflect the fashion of the time in that the rhythmic differentiation which is a feature of the 16th- and 17th-century originals has largely disappeared. The most traditional part of this Passion is the way the recitatives are written. They are very lively and sometimes quite dramatic and in that respect not fundamentally different from Bach's recitatives, even though some passages to which Bach paid much attention, go by here without much fuss.

Georg Poplutz is a very fine Evangelist who is an excellent story teller putting the text in the centre. Now and then I found his tempo a bit too slow and here and there he could have taken more rhythmic freedom. But the text is always clearly audible which is absolutely essential. Thilo Dahlmann gives a good account of the part of Jesus; the slight vibrato is regrettable but doesn't really disturb. I assume he also sings the bass aria I mentioned before, and he does so admirably. The other soloists are outstanding as well, both in their recitatives and in their arias. Ana-Marija Brkic and Sophie Harmsen are an excellent match in the duet. The choruses are sung well but the chorales could have been given a bit more weight. Lastly, it seems historically correct that this work is performed with one voice per part and a quartet of ripienists.

This production bears witness to the growing interest in sacred music by composers from the generation of the Bach sons. For a long time this kind of music was thought to be inferior, especially as it was always compared with Bach. That doesn't make sense, considering the different aesthetic parameters. Works like this St Matthew Passion should be assessed on their own merits and if we compare it with some other music of the time it comes out as a piece of fine quality which deserves to be performed during Passiontide now and then. The more of this repertoire appears on disc - and I hope that more from Rolle's oeuvre will be recorded - the more it turns out that the art of writing good music for the liturgy did not die with Bach in 1750.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Thilo Dahlmann
Georg Poplutz
Kölner Akademie

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