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Johann Theile: "Cantatas for Gottorp Palace"

Hedwig Westhoff-Düppmann, soprano (#); Martin Backhaus, bass ($)
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir.: Simone Eckert

rec: April 23 - 25, 2001, Norddeutscher Rundfunk
Christophorus - CHR 77245 (63'55")

JPh Förtsch: Aus der Tiefe (#); Veni creator spiritus (#$); J Schop: Ballet; Canzon VIII; Lachrymae Pavan; Paduana & Galliard; J Theile: Die Seele Christi heilige mich (#); Gott hilf mir (#); Jesu, mein Herr und Gott (#); Praeludium - Aria - Courante - Sarabande, Sonata a 3 (from: Musikalisches Kunstbuch, 1691)

Annegret Siedel, Renate Genz (violin), Simone Eckert (descant & bass viol), Hermann Hicketier (viola da gamba), Ulrich Wedemeier (chitarrone), Karl Ernst Went (organ)

Johann Theile is not exactly a household name. And the information about his musical education is rather fragmentary. But from what is known one may conclude that he was highly gifted, not only musically, but also intellectually. At the age of just 12 he was already a studying law at Leipzig University. That was mainly a way to improve his social position, since he was of humble birth. He was held in high esteem by student friends and also, according to a poem dedicated to him in the preface of his first publication of 1667, by none other than Heinrich Schütz. Theile did take lessons with Schütz, but how intensive their relationship was, is not known. Later on, Theile had a frequent contact with Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck.
From 1673 - 1675 Theile was Kapellmeister at the Gottorp Palace, some 120 kilometers away from Lübeck, and then on Danish territory. The dukes of Gottorp had made their palace a cultural centre of the northern region. It even got an international reputation by attracting musicians from England, who left their country for religious reasons. One of them was William Brade. Political circumstances in Denmark forced the Duke to leave Gottorp for Hamburg in 1675. Theile followed him, after a failed attempt to succeed Sebastian Knüpfer as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

The title of this CD, "Johann Theile - Cantatas for Gottorp Palace", is somewhat misleading. First of all, none of the existing works by Theile can be dated with any certainty, so the suggestion that they were composed for performance at Gottorp Palace is nothing but a wild guess. Secondly, not only cantatas by Theile are performed, but also some instrumental works. And thirdly, a substantial part of the recording - in fact more than half of it - is devoted to two composers, who can be linked in some way or another with Gottorp Palace, but not at the same time as Theile. Johann Schop was invited to Gottorp at the occasion of the wedding of the Duke Friedrich III in 1630, and Förtsch was one of Theile's pupils during his stay in Hamburg and became Kapellmeister at Gottorp Palace in 1690.
Theile had the reputation of being a master of counterpoint. This was amply demonstrated by his masses, published in 1673. Even in the cantatas recorded here he is moderate as far as harmony is concerned. That doesn't mean, though, that he was a conservative composer. In the treatment of the text he follows the concertato style of his teacher Schütz. And in his time in Hamburg he even played a role in the foundation of the Opera at the Gänsemarkt. His pupil Förtsch is sometimes dismissed as a conservative as well. That is certainly not true. In particular his setting of Psalm 130 (Aus der Tiefe) reflects the influence of the modern Italian style, for example in the virtuosity of vocal and instrumental parts.

This unknown repertoire gets a fine performance here. Hedwig Westhoff-Düppmann has worked with ensembles like Weser-Renaissance and Cantus Cölln, and certainly knows what she is doing. She has a beautiful, clear voice and her articulation and pronunciation are impeccable. Unfortunately a 'slip of the tongue' in the last piece, Förtsch' Veni creator spiritus, hasn't been corrected. The bass Martin Backhaus, only singing in this piece, is disappointing. His voice is bland and lacks character.
The instrumental scoring of the pieces in this recording is characteristic for those days: mostly two violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo. In some works a descant viol is used as well.
On the whole the instrumentalists are doing a good job. Only here and there they could have been a little more adventurous and bold, for example in Theile's cantata Gott hilf mir, on verses from Psalm 69. The repeated notes in the instrumental parts which are illustrating the force of the water the text speaks about ("Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul"), should have been played with more imagination.
This is a very recommendable recording, which contains a highly informative essay on the composer and his world by Simone Eckert.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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