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Heinrich Schütz: Johannes-Passion; Johann Theile: Matthäus-Passion

Cornelia Horaka, soprano; Johannes Chum, tenor; Bernhard Hobigerb, Markus Volperta, bass
Cappella Nova Graz; Private Musicke
Dir: Otto Kargl
rec: May 2002, Graz, Pfarrkirche Maria Hilf
ORF - CD 361 (79'25" - 59'52")

CD 1: Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703): Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt; Hans-Leo Hassler (1564-1612): Vater unser im Himmelreich (Dein Will gescheh); Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722): Tristis est anima mea; Johann Theile (1646-1724): Das Leiden und Sterben unsers Herrn Jesu Christi nach dem Heiligen Evangelisten Matthäo (Matthäus-Passion)a
CD 2: Alfonso Ferrabosco II (1575-1628): Fantasia a 4; Anthony Holborne (c1545-1602): The image of Melancholly; Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672): Die mit Tränen säen (SWV 378); Historia des Leidens und Sterbens unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi nach dem Evangelisten St. Johannes (Johannes-Passion) (SWV 481)b; Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt (SWV 393); Selig sind die Toten (SWV 391); Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656): Pavan & Galliard a 5

Milos Valent, Dasa Valentova, viola da braccio; Pierre Pitz, Daniel Pilz, viola da gamba; Roberto Sensi, violone; Franz Danksagmüller, organ

Although the suffering and death of Jesus Christ always was an essential element in the theology of the Christian church of the West, over the years it was gradually overshadowed by Christmas as the most important feast of the ecclesiastical year. It was Martin Luther who put Jesus's passion in the centre of the church again. His theology has rightly been characterised as 'theology of the cross'.
This resulted in German composers from the 16th to the 18th century who worked in the Lutheran tradition, composing a lot of music for this period in the liturgical year. Among them are the 'Passions', settings of the records of Jesus's passion in the gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. The two Passions on this release illustrate the way composers of the second half of the 17th century set the words of the Evangelists to music.

The St John Passion by Heinrich Schütz was probably first performed in 1666. Although it is a late composition, its character points to the past rather than to the future. That can hardly be surprising, considering the fact that in the later stages of his career Schütz underlined time and again the lasting importance of traditional polyphony. In 1648 he had already shown impressively how he himself made use of the stile antico in his Geistliche Chormusik.
The St John Passion can be considered the last specimen of the traditional German chorale passion as it was composed during the 16th century. The parts of the Evangelist and the soliloquentes are sung solo, the turbae as well as the introduction and conclusion are set polyphonically. No instruments are used, and the text is only that of the gospel (with the exception of introduction and conclusion).

Johann Theile's St Matthew Passion dates from about the same time. It was printed in Lübeck in 1673. But stylistically it represents a new stage in the development of Passion composition. Here instruments are used: the part of the Evangelist is supported by two tenor viols and basso continuo, the words of Jesus by two viole da braccio and b.c. In addition to the text of the gospel there are four free texts, set in the way of a chorale - although called aria -, to be sung by a solo voice, accompanied by viols and b.c. The Passion is introduced by a short instrumental sinfonia, followed - in line with tradition - by the title of the work. The conclusion is another aria, for the tutti this time, which is an expression of gratitude for Jesus's passion and death and a prayer for mercy at the time of our death. Although Theile's Passion differs from Schütz' Passion in several ways, the part of the Evangelist is still sung at the recitation pitch of old.

It is a little strange that the older Passion is on the second disc, and the more modern on the first. Both discs contain some other compositions as well.
Since Schütz' Passion is a rather short piece - here is lasts just over 30 minutes - there have to be some fillers. On the one hand three motets from the collection Geistliche Chormusik of 1648 have been chosen. From a stylistic point of view that makes sense, as explained above. But as far as the content is concerned there isn't always much in common between the motets and the Passion. The most logical choice is 'Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt', which sensibly closes the disc. 'Selig sind die Toten' could be connected to the Passion in that it is about the dead who die in the Lord. But the setting of verses from Psalm 126, 'Die mit Tränen säen', can hardly be connected to the Passion. Even stranger is the choice of instrumental pieces for viol consort by English composers like Holborne, Tomkins and Ferrabosco II. Stylistically they just don't match with the pieces by Schütz. It must be possible to find instrumental pieces by German composers of the same time, which would fit more logically.

There is no need to look for any additional music to Theile's Passion, as it lasts more than one hour - in this performance even almost 70 minutes. But here we find additional music as well. In the booklet we find a reference to the foreword by Theile himself, who speaks about the fact that in some towns instruments were not allowed to play during Lent. In that case the Evangelist can sing his part without the instrumental accompaniment, and the arias are set in simple style, which makes it possible to sing them without accompaniment as well. And here Theile writes that these arias can be sung as replacement for the German sung psalms. This refers to the practice of the congregation singing hymns during the Passion.
In the booklet Eva Maria Hois writes: "In accordance with this practice the second verse of the simple four-part chorale 'Our Father in Heaven' [Vater unser im Himmelreich] by Hans-Leo Hassler (1564 - 1612), the motet 'Tristis est anima mea' by Johann Kuhnau (1660 - 1722) and 'The righteous, although his death shall come too soon' [Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt] by Johann Christoph Bach (1642 - 1703) are added at the appropriate moments to Theile's Passion". This is rather strange.
First of all: Theile refers to chorales sung by the congregation - even Hassler's four-part setting doesn't belong to that category, let alone the motets by Johann Christoph Bach and Kuhnau. Secondly: Theile refers to the four arias as replacement for the chorales. Therefore it is a matter of either - or: either the four arias are sung or the congregation sings a hymn. And therefore the remark that the three pieces mentioned are added at "the appropriate moments" is utter nonsense. And then there is the fact that in the time that Theile composed his Passion Kuhnau's motet didn't exist yet, nor - in all likelihood - Johann Christoph Bach's motet. This is a typical example of a concept which hasn't been thought-over well.

As far as the performance is concerned, in both cases one wonders whether a choir is suitable to perform these Passions. Historically speaking there is much to say for a performance with a smallish vocal ensemble. In this respect London Baroque's recording of Theile's St Matthew Passion is preferable.
The performance of Schütz' St John Passion is pretty good. The part of the Evangelist is sung by Johannes Chum, and he has the appropriate voice for it, with a clear diction which makes the text easily understandable, even to those who don't know the text already. The other parts are also well performed. I am less positive about the interpretation of the St Matthew Passion by Theile. Like I said, here the work lasts almost 70 minutes, which is about 10 minutes slower than London Baroque's. That has mainly to do with the general slowness of the tempi. In particular the part of the Evangelist is too slow, which makes it rather unnatural. The singer shoult realise this part as a story teller, with natural accents and an appropriate tempo, which keeps things going. Not only in regard to the scoring - vocal ensemble vs choir - I clearly prefer London Baroque's recording, also regarding the performance of the part of the Evangelist - Johannes Chum doesn't do badly, but just can't compete with Kurt Equiluz, who sings this part brilliantly.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

Relevant links:

Heinrich Schütz
Cappella Nova Graz

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