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Thomas SELLE (1599 - 1663): St John Passion

Göttinger Barockchor; Göttinger Barockorchester
Dir: Antonius Adamske

rec: March 17 - 20, 2022, Ricklingen an der Leine, Schloss Ricklingen
Coviello Classics - COV92304 (© 2023) (51'49")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Die Erd ist des Herren (D 1.48); Johannespassion mit Intermedien; Lobet den Herren (D 1.47)

Kerstin Diehl, Bogna Bernagiewicz, soprano; Johannes Euler, Luca Segger, alto; Dantes Diwiak (Evangelist), Markus Brutscher, tenor; Steffen Schulte, Janno Scheller (Jesus), bass
Martin Bolterauer, Lilli Pätzold, cornett; Andreas Neuhaus, sackbut; Rhoda Patrick, dulcian; Hans-Henning Vater, Christiane Gagelmann, violin; Konstanze Waidosch, Alma Stolte, viola da gamba; Juan Díaz, violone; Thorsten Bleich, lute, bandora; Antonius Adamske, harpsichord; Christian Windhorst, regal; Christof Pannes, organ

In Protestant Germany Passiontide was of crucial - literally and figuratively - importance. Martin Luther's main question was: "How can I find a merciful God?" By studying the Scriptures he found out that God was reconciling the world unto himself in Christ, thanks to the latter's Passion and death. His theology has been characterised as theologica crucis. No wonder, then, that in the Protestant part of Germany a large repertoire of music for Passiontide has been written. Part of that were the narratives of Jesus' suffering and death in Jerusalem according to the four Evangelists. Especially the reports in the Gospels after St Matthew and St John were frequently set. Today the Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach are part of the standard repertoire, and so are some later Passion oratorios in which the Gospel texts are not used literally but in paraphrases. Earlier Passions receive relatively little interest, although some of them have been recorded. Among those are the St Matthew Passions by Johann Theile and by Johann Sebastiani respectively. As far as I know the St John Passion by Thomas Selle has never been recorded for a commercial release. In my archive I have a studio recording by WDR Cologne with soloists and the ensemble London Baroque, which unfortumately has never been released. Therefore the recording which is the subject of this review is very welcome.

From 1641 until his death Thomas Selle worked in Hamburg, where he had many possibilities to perform pieces in large-scale scorings. There he composed at least three Passions: the work-list in New Grove mentions a St Matthew Passion and two St John Passions. However, in the latter case it could concern the same work in different scorings. The St John Passion recorded by Antonius Adamske dates from 1643 and includes three intermedia. The second St John Passion mentioned in New Grove has the addition sine intermediis, which suggests that it is a more concise version of the previous Passion. The scoring of the version performed here is for four to twelve voices. It is the first Passion in history in which the narrative of the Gospel is interrupted by extra-biblical texts.

The work opens with a heading, as we find them in all Passions: "Hear now the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Gospel of John the Evangelist". Then the Evangelist (tenor) recites the text from the Gospel in a declamatory style, which was common in the 17th century, and we also find in, for instance, Theile's St Matthew Passion. He is accompanied by two viole da gamba; the role of Jesus is scored for a bass with support of violins. In this recording other roles are also accompanied by instruments, such as the part of Pilate with cornetts. Selle himself has indicated which instruments should be used, but at the same time he offers alternatives. In the latter case the balance between the solo voice and the cornetts is rather unsatisfactory. The turbae are sung by the tutti, and here instruments also participate.

The narrative is rather short: it is divided into three partes, taking a little over 17 minutes in total. Each pars is followed by an intermedium. The first is Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, a setting of verses from the prophet Isaiah (ch 53). This is set for the entire ensemble. It follows Jesus's words: “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" The second intermedium follows the episode where the people ask him to be crucified, and the high priest's declaring that "[we] have no king but Caesar". This intermedium is a setting of Psalm 22, vs 1-21; the opening verse - "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" - was quoted by Jesus at the Cross. The tertia pars closes with verse 35 from St John ch 19: "He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe." This is followed by a prayer: "We believe, dear Lord, strengthen our faith. Amen". Then the work closes with the third intermedium, a setting of the hymn O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig. It is sung three times, as is each phrase: the first two times the last word of each phrase is repeated. The first and third times the hymn is performed by the tutti, the second time by solo voices.

The concise character of this Passion makes it perfectly suited to be performed on a regular basis. So far, that is not the case. It is to be hoped that is going to change. It is a fine work, which deserves its place in the standard repertoire for Passiontide. The performance does it full justice. Dantes Diwiak and Janno Scheller are convincing in the roles of the Evangelist and Jesus respectively. I already mentioned the problems regarding the role of Pilate; the cornetts are a bit too loud and Johannes Euler a little too soft in volume. The tutti sections are excellently executed.

The programme ends and closes with two psalm settings, which attest to the quality of Selle's oeuvre and receive fine performances. Die Erd ist des Herren is a setting of Psalm 24, the text of Lobet den Herren is Psalm 117 (the same text as Bach's motet BWV 230).

A little over 51 minutes is a bit meagre; Selle's oeuvre is not exactly small, so there was enough material to choose from. It should not withhold anyone from investigating this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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