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Johann THEILE (1646 - 1724): Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi (St Matthew Passion)

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: Jan 28 - 30, 2019, Bassum, Stiftskirche
CPO - 555 285-2 (© 2020) (61'09")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Marie-Luise Werneburg, Johanna Bookmeyer, soprano; David Erler, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel (Evangelist), Christian Volkmann, tenor; Dominik Wörner (Jesus), Joachim Höchbauer, bass
Veronika Skuplik, Franciska Hajdu, violin; Juliane Laake, Frauke Hess, Heike Johanna Lindner, viola da gamba; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Jörg Jacobi, organ

During the Renaissance Passions were written across Europe. From England we know a Passion by Richard Davy, Orlandus Lassus also composed some Passions, and Tomás Luis de Victoria included several Passions in his collection of music for Holy Week. However, after 1600 no Passions by English or French composers are known, and only a few Italian composers seem to have written settings of the biblical narrative. Most Passions that have come down to us, were written in Germany, but unfortunately there can be little doubt that many have been lost. The composers were all from the Protestant part of Germany, and that can easily be explained. The Passion of Christ is the heart of Lutheran theology, often characterised as 'theology of the Cross'. The Passion was part of the liturgy and aimed at making the congregation 'relive', as it were, Christ's Passion, and that way be reminded once again of its own sins and the necessity of Jesus's suffering and death.

The history of Passion settings shows the change in the way the biblical narrative was set. During the Renaissance, composers confined themselves to the text of one of the Gospels, and this was always in Latin. It was in Germany, after the Reformation, that the first Passions in the vernacular were written. Die deutsche Passion of 1567 by Joachim von Burck (1546-1610) may be the very first work of this kind. During the 17th century, composers gradually started to include extra-biblical texts into their Passion settings. The first extant specimen of this type is probably the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastiani, which includes hymns and which is also notable for the use of instruments. The St Matthew Passion by Johann Theile, which was published in Lübeck in 1673, may be the second setting of this kind.

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. In 1675 Theile moved to Hamburg because of the threat of a Danish invasion. There 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.

Theile dedicated his Passion to his employer, Duke Christian Albrecht, and his wife Friderica Amalia. It is divided into two parts, probably meant to be performed before and after the sermon respectively. The roles of the Evangelist and of Jesus are scored for tenor and bass respectively. One of the notable features of Theile's Passion is the participation of instruments. The Evangelist is accompanied by viole da gamba, Jesus by violins. The word 'accompaniment' is probably less appropriate, as the instruments usually have a short cadenza before another character enters. In fact, the two vocal parts are more or less embedded in an instrumental fabric. The other characters, such as Pilate (bass), Peter (tenor) and Judas (alto) are supported by basso continuo alone. The instruments also play ritornellos between the two stanzas of the 'arias', which are for solo voice and basso continuo. In his preface, Theile indicates that the instruments can also be omitted. In that case, the arias should be replaced by hymns.

The parts of the Evangelist and Jesus remind of the traditional Passion tone, as we find it in, for instance, the a capella Passions by Heinrich Schütz. However, they are considerably more dramatic, which is also due to the contributions of the instruments. At the same time, the instrumental parts are written in such a way, that the singer has to oblige to the rhythm, and can't take any liberties, as was the rule in Italian monody or would become the standard in 18th-century recitatives. There are several passages with text expression, for instance in the depiction of the earthquake and the exclamations of the people: "If thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross!"

The arias, all except one scored for soprano, introduce a rather personal element in the Passion. The author of the texts is unknown, but they reflect the spirit of German Pietism. The first aria includes the phrase: "[Let] your spilt red blood benefit my poor soul when Satan sets out to torment me and to deny me the gift of heaven". The second aria opens with a rather 'objective' stanza, but turns to a more personal and subjective note in the second: "Alas, I feel it deep in my soul, for there is no protection whatsoever at hand". The third aria follows the denial by Peter, and the words are put into his mouth: "Alas, where shall I turn to overcome my misery? (...) Weep, my eyes, wellsprings of tears, to repent of my guilt". This aria is appropriately scored for tenor, also the voice type of Peter. The fourth aria is for soprano again: "Alas, the torture! Alas, the anguish!" This is rather an expression of compassion with Jesus, interestingly not unlike the kind of texts we find in 18th-century Passion oratorios. The Passion opens with a short sinfonia, followed by the heading ("The passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Matthew") and closes with a chorale in four stanzas for five voices and instruments.

Johann Theile's St Matthew Passion is certainly one of the most interesting pieces of its kind. It takes a key role in German music history, but also bears witness of the quality of Theile as a composer of sacred - or generally vocal - music. It is rather odd that this seems only the third recording of this Passion. The first was released in 1984 by Harmonia mundi, with Kurt Equiluz as the Evangelist and Stephen Varcoe in the role of Jesus. Among the other soloists were renowned singers as Rogers Covey-Crump, John Potter and Harry van der Kamp. This recording, with the ensemble London Baroque, is still very worthwhile. The second recording is by a Dutch ensemble, the Cappella ad Fluvium (2001), which seems not to have found a wide dissemination, and I can't remember having heard it. This new recording by Weser-Renaissance Bremen is in every way excellent. It is hard to find a better interpreter of the part of the Evangelist than Hans Jörg Mammel, whose diction and articulation are so good that one can understand every word, without looking the libretto in the booklet. The same goes for Dominik Wörner, who delivers an impressive account of the part of Jesus. This is exactly as it should be: in a work like this, intended to communicate the message to the faithful, the text should be in the centre of attention. The other parts are also very well sung, although I have slight reservations with regard to Joachim Höchbauer in the role of Pilate. The arias are beautifully sung, and the instrumental ensemble's performances are alert and lively, entirely oriented towards the optimum expression of the text.

If you want to add a substantial work to your collection of Passion music, don't miss this one.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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