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

Siri Karoline Thornhill, soprano; Elvira Bill, mezzo-soprano; Dora Pavlikova, contralto; Hugo Hymas, Markus Schäfer (Evangelist), tenor; Matthias Vieweg, baritone; Thilo Dahlmann (Jesus), bass-baritone
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: June 24 - 27 & August 19, 2022, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 555 525-2 (© 2023) (90'49")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Siri Karoline Thornhill, Dorothea Jacob, Luzie Franke, soprano; Bettina Schaeffer, Dora Pavlikova, contralto; Gabriel Sin, Niek van den Dool, tenor; Matthias Vieweg, Thilo Dahlmann, bass
Gudrun Knop, Mariya Miliutsina, transverse flute; Christopher Palameta, Mario Topper, oboe; Yoichi Murakami, Christopher Weddle, horn; Yukiko Murakami, Feyzi Çokgez, bassoon; Antonio de Sarlo, Ye-Young Hwang, Berit Brüntjen, Bruno van Esseveld, Yuko Matsumoto, Katarina Todorovic, violin; Rafael Roth, Iván Sáez Schwartz, viola; Peter Hamouz, Nicolas Selo, cello; Alon Portal, violone; Willi Kronenberg, organ

It has taken some time until the music written by composers between the baroque and classical eras was taken seriously, performed and recorded. Today it regularly appears on the programmes of concerts and discs. Most of it concerns instrumental music. The vocal music, and in particular the sacred works from this period, are still in the process of being rediscovered. As far as German music is concerned, some of the sacred works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach have become known, and after the turn of the century a series of recordings of cantatas and oratorios by Gottfried August Homilius offered a glimpse of what this period may have in store. Recently, the oeuvre of Johann Heinrich Rolle is receiving some attention. As so often, the German label CPO is playing a key role in the discovery of the oeuvre of this contemporary of the sons of Bach. In 2015 it released a set of discs with motets by Rolle, and a year later his St Matthew Passion. The latest recording concerns his St Luke Passion.

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, although there is no firm evidence of this. 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 one of the duties of any Kantor to compose such works. 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 one 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 paraphrase of the Gospels and several characters are included, either from the Gospels (John, Peter, Mary) or allegorical.

It seems that even before Rolle moved to Magdeburg, he supplied music for liturgical performances there. His St Matthew Passion dates from 1748, when he was acting as organist at St John's, and this work was performed under the direction of his father. The same may have been the case with his St Luke Passion, which is from 1744. Like the St Matthew Passion, it ranks among the genre of the oratorio Passion. The core of the work is the narrative of the Gospel after St Luke; this was one of the less frequently-used Gospels for oratorios, and many listeners may not be familiar with it, in comparison with the narratives of the Gospels after St Matthew and St John. There are some differences between Rolle's Passion and other oratorio Passions. First, whereas in such Passions the arias are allocated to a voice type without any association with a particular character, either biblical or allegorical, the tenor aria in Rolle's St Luke Passion is put into the mouth of Peter, after his betrayal. Second, whereas in the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, today the best-known specimens of the genre of the oratorio Passion, the texts of the choruses are part of the narrative of the Gospels (except those at the start and the finish), Rolle's libretto - by an unknown author - includes two choruses of a reflective or commenting nature, which are aiming at appealing to the audience. The first is part of the opening scene: when the Evangelist tells that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, followed by his disciples, the chorus sings: "Let us go out to Jesus outside of the den and bear his shame". And when Pilate delivers Jesus to the people, the chorus sings: "The pious Jesus is to die, the frenzied throngs cloud his misery. One tears, one leads him to death, to stain the heavy cross with blood".

The latter aspect also says something about his Passion in general. Again, the difference with Bach's Passions is notable. In the latter's arias, it is always a believer who is speaking to Jesus or to himself, acting as a representative of the congregation. That is also the case in most of the arias in Rolle's St Luke Passion, but there are two exceptions. One is the aria for bass, 'Nimm, sich'rer Mensch', which appeals to the congregation: "Taketh to heart, dear one, the highest counsel, we must not jest with those sins, for terror multiplies the zeal of God. Innocence hath suffered terribly, but thou, thy biting conscience tells thee, that dry wood shall be cast to the fire". This aria follows Jesus's lament on the fate of Jerusalem: "[If] people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" The second exception is the aria of Peter, as mentioned above. It closes the scene about the disciple's betrayal; interestingly, the reflective part, following the Evangelist's statement that Peter "wept bitterly", shows some similarity with Bach's treatment in his St Matthew Passion. It opens with an accompanied recitative, 'Erbarm es Gott': "Have mercy, O God, where shall I go, where shall I stay?" In the next recitative and the closing aria, the tenor turns to comfort: "Be calm, ye thoughts, my faith shall not be shaken, who can condemn me, my Jesus is here."

This is not an isolated case: it says something about the nature of this Passion. As Klaus Winkler puts it in his liner-notes: "In a joyful D major, the passion begins in a cheerful tone that lacks the severity and gravity of Jesus' story of suffering as we know it from Bach's passions. The theological approach expressed here was widespread from the middle of the 18th century. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross is described as the proof of grace and kindness of God towards all humanity, from whom the horror of death is taken away, since the gratitude of Christians outweighs it." This shows that Rolle's St Luke Passion is a product of its time, and more modern than its form may suggest.

I have already mentioned some features which are typical of the oratorio passion, which was a thing of the past in the 1740s, when this work was written. The same goes for the important role of counterpoint, which is a typical baroque feature. We find it, for instance, in some of the choruses as well as in the treatment of the orchestra. The number of aria's is limited: both soprano and alto have two arias to sing, tenor and bass each just one. The last lyrical piece is a duet of soprano and alto, which follows the moment that Jesus has given up the ghost. The text reminds us of the closing chorus of Bach's St John Passion: "Ruhet sanft, ihr holden Glieder, schlafet wohl, es ist vollbracht" - Rest peacefully, ye fair limbs, sleep well, it is finished. In the second part, it addresses Jesus: "Christ, let us bear our troubles with serenity until that joyous day breaks, for Jesus hath made us blessed". However, this is not the end of the Passion. We still hear how things go on, with the centurion's saying that Jesus was "a righteous man", and the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathaea. The work ends with a chorale in three stanzas, the last of which says: "We thank thee, O Lamb of God, slain on the wood of the cross! Let thy torment be to us sinners to door to life".

Those who know the Passions by Bach and also other oratorio Passions and Passion oratorios by German composers of the 18th century will recognize a number of elements, including hymns that also appear in other works of this kind. However, some of the chorales are not well-known, and some may be not easy to recognize because of melodic and rhythmic differences. They often appear in a shape that shows how much such hymns changed with time. Stylistally this Passion is an interesting work from the middle of a period of change in aesthetic preferences; in its content it documents the change in doctrine in Lutheran Germany.

The fact that Rolle's oeuvre is in the process of being rediscovered seems fully justified, on the basis of the recordings that I have heard. This St Luke Passion is a fine work, and a valuable addition to the repertoire, just like his St Matthew Passion. The performances do it full justice. Markus Schäfer is an excellent Evangelist, who only sometimes is a little too strict in this treatment of rhythm; I had liked a little more freedom in the first stages of the work. Thilo Dahlmann gives the role of Jesus just enough weight. The arias are given very fine performances. All of them are very good, but the duet at the end is probably the highlight, and here Siri Thornhill and Elvira Bill shine in their treatment of the text and the way their voices blend. The choruses are sung by nine voices (3/2/2/2); some of the soloists participate in them. This may well be in line with common practice at the time in most places in Germany.

With this recording Rolle's two extant oratorio Passions are available on disc. I hope that we may see recordings of his Passion oratorios in the years to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Elvira Bill
Thilo Dahlmann
Hugo Hymas
Markus Schäfer
Siri Karoline Thornhill
Matthias Vieweg
Kölner Akademie

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