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Johann THEILE (1646 - 1724): "Seelen-Music"

Dorothee Mields, soprano
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir: Simone Eckert

rec: Jan 9 - 12, 2017, Schleswig, Schloss Gottorf (chapel)
CPO - 555 132-2 (© 2019) (68'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Theile

Christian FLOR (1626-1697) (attr): Es ist gnug, Herr; Inter brachia Salvatoris mei; Johann THEILE: Ach, daß ich hören sollte; Die Seele Christi heilige mich; Gott hilf mir, denn das Wasser gehet mir bis an die Seele; Jesu mein Herr und Gott; Sonata à 4; Sonata à 5; Sonata à 5; Gregor ZUBER (c1610-after 1673): Suite in d minor; Suite in g minor; Suite in a minor

Hermann Hickethier, Barbara Hofmann, Bastian Altvater, Heike Johanna Lindner, Simone Eckert, viola da gamba; Ulrich Wedemeier, theorbo; Anke Dennert, harpsichord, organ

As I have observed more than once, German music from the second half of the 17th century - say, between Schütz and Bach - receives only limited attention. Buxtehude is well-known, of course, and the interest in Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, is growing, but too many composers are still under the radar. Johann Theile is a good example. He is not well represented on disc, and his music is seldom included in anthologies. Unfortunately, he is also one of those composers who seriously suffer from the fact that a considerable part of their oeuvre has been lost.

Theile was born in Naumburg an der Saale. He studied law in Leipzig from 1666 to about 1672 and soon acted as music teacher to his fellow students. In 1667 he already published his first compositions, a collection of secular songs. Theile took lessons in counterpoint with Heinrich Schütz, and this resulted in the publication of Kyrie-Gloria masses, which received praise from Schütz's favourite pupil, Christoph Bernhard. In 1673 he entered the service of Duke Christian Albrecht of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp. That same year the first performance of his St Matthew Passion took place, which was printed in Lübeck. This is one of his main contributions to the history of sacred music in Germany and is a significant stage in the development towards the oratorio Passion. Because of the threat of a Danish invasion, Theile moved to Hamburg, where he was one of the founders of the Oper am Gänsemarkt. He himself contributed several works for the stage, which are all lost. In 1685 he succeeded Johann Rosenmüller as Kapellmeister to Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. In 1691 he entered the service of Duke Christian of Merseburg. When the Duke died in 1694, Theile left, but his whereabouts in the next stage of his life are not entirely clear. However, around 1700 he seems to have been in Berlin, where he taught the oboe to King Frederick I of Prussia. He spent the last years of his life with his eldest son, who was organist in Naumburg; there he also died.

Due to the loss of a considerable part of his oeuvre, his extant output is not that large. Apart from the masses in the stile antico (although they include a basso continuo part), he left seven psalm settings for solo voices, instruments and basso continuo as well as a number of motets or sacred concertos for one to five voices, instruments and basso continuo. The secular songs were already mentioned. Notable are also his theoretical works; among them the Musicalisches Kunstbuch, which includes a number of his compositions, such as two masses and instrumental works.

In 1997 CPO released a disc with a mass and two psalms, performed by Weser-Renaissance, directed by Manfred Cordes. His St Matthew Passion has been recorded several times, and Ludger Rémy was responsible for the recording of a selection from his secular music. Simone Eckert recorded three of Theile's sacred concertos almost twenty years ago for Christophorus. They are also included here; the only new piece is Ach, daß ich hören sollte. In a way that is disappointing, although it is possible that the Christophorus disc is not available anymore.

What we have here are all the sacred concertos for soprano and instruments. Bernd Heyder, in his liner-notes, discusses whether these pieces were intended as church music or rather as pieces for private worship. He states that this is impossible to say with any certainty. Gott, hilf mir is a setting of verses from Psalm 69, and the text of Ach, daß ich hören sollte is taken from Psalm 85. The other pieces are free texts and bring us in the atmosphere of Lutheran pietism. These could be well intended for private worship. The way Theile has set the texts, though, give me the impression that they are all intended for such occasions. Although the influence of the Italian style cannot be overlooked, these pieces are anything but theatrical. They are rather intimate in nature, and the title of this disc - "music of the soul" - is perfectly chosen, as it sums up what this music is about. The scoring with viole da gamba, prescribed by the composer, contributes their intimacy. Sometimes they are used to illustrate the text, such as in Gott, hilf mir: "God, help me, for the water is streaming all the way to my soul".

This disc has more to offer than only pieces by Theile. We get two sacred concertos which are attributed to Christian Flor. He was born in Oldenburg in Holstein (now part of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein) and probably a pupil of Scheidemann or Tunder. His first job was as organist in Rendsburg, and later in Lüneburg. These two pieces perfectly fit into this programme. Es ist gnug is an impressive piece with a short text; the first phrase - "It is enough" - is repeated a number of times and is the heart of this concerto. Inter brachia Salvatoris ends with the word "mori" ([I wish to] die); the soprano and the instruments fall silent. This is comparable with the way Theile closes Ach, daß ich hören sollte, where the soprano sings "ach! ach!".

The programme is extended by instrumental items. The sonatas by Theile are from his Musicalisches Kunstbuch and demonstrate the composer's skills in the department of counterpoint. Theile may be little known, Gregor Zuber is a completely unknown quantity, who has no entry in New Grove. He had been in the service of the court in Gottorp before Theile, and worked as a violinist in Lübeck from 1640 to 1660. His dance suites are part of a tradition of dance music reflecting French influence, which goes back to Michael Praetorius' Terpsichore.

As one may expect, Dorothee Mields is the perfect interpreter of the sacred concertos. The text is the main thing here, and she pays it much attention through an immaculate diction, a precise articulation and effective dynamic shading. The viole da gamba are her perfect partners which considerably contribute to the impact of these works. They are at their very best in the instrumental pieces. This disc is the ideal introduction to the music of Theile.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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