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Thomas SELLE (1599 - 1663): Sacred Music

[I] "Die Auferstehung Christi - Historia, Sacred Concertos & Motets for Easter"
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: April 3, 2008 (live), Bremen, St. Ansgarii
CPO - 777 396-2 (© 2009) (72'14")

[II] "Motetten und Geistliche Konzerte" (Motets and Sacred Concertos)
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the Thomas Selle-Ensemble
Dir: Steffen Hinger

rec: April 29 - May 1, 2006, Convent Obermarchtal (Sommerrefektorium)
Verein der Freunde des Thomas Selle-Ensemble e.V. (61'08")

[I] A Domino factum est illud a 14; Christ ist erstanden a 4; Christ lag in Todesbanden a 4; Erstanden ist der Herre Christ a 4; Historia der Auferstehung a 14; Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt a 8; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandt a 9; Surrexit Christus spes mea a 12
[II] Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt; Der Herre ist mein treuer Hirt; Es war aber ein Mensch; Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn; Nun lob mein Seel den Herren; O Gott, wir danken deiner Güt'; Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Zion spricht: Der Herr hat mich verlassen

[I] Monika Mauch, Manja Stephan, soprano; Beat Duddeck, alto; Mirko Ludwig, Julian Podger, Knut Schoch, tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass; Ursula Bundies, Irina Kisselova, violin; Claire Bracher, Nina Lehninger, Hille Perl, viola da gamba; Christian Heim, viola da gamba, violone; William Dongois, cornett; Cas Gevers, Detlef Reimers, sackbut; Moni Fischalek, dulcian; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Margit Schultheiß, harp, organ; Detlef Bratschke, regal, organ
[II, soli] Stephanie Hermanutz, Marina Niedel, soprano; Helma Hinger, Ingrid Tröster, contralto; Nickel Sindek, Marco Werz, tenor; Tilman Steck, baritone; Clemens Eiche, bass; Bernhard Lingner, violin

Hamburg was one of Germany's main musical centres in the second half of the 17th century. This was the result of excellent musicians working in the city, both in the church and in the opera. The three musicians who played a central role in church music were the organist Heinrich Scheidemann, the violinist Johann Schop and the Musikdirektor Thomas Selle. The organ works of Scheidemann are relatively well represented on disc, but so far the compositions of the other two are hardly explored. Therefore these two discs devoted to sacred works of Selle are most welcome.

Selle's early years are relatively poorly documented. He was born in Zörbig in Saxonia, and probably went to the Thomasschule in Leipzig, and then to the university. It is likely he was acquainted with or even a pupil of Sethus Calvisius, choirmaster of the Thomasschule, and his successor Johann Hermann Schein. From 1624 to 1641 he held several positions in the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf. The position of church and city music director in Hamburg was a prestigious one, and the fact that he was appointed as such is an indication of his reputation. This is confirmed by the laudation of the senior of the local pastorate, calling him "a man who is very learned and excellently versed in the Muses".

Selle had a decisive influence on the performing conditions in the churches in Hamburg. It didn't take much time to change the organisation of the church music: the local town musicians were included in performances of liturgical music and additional musicians were hired. Selle also made sure more singers were available, some of whom from outside the church. The increase in size and quality of the vocal and instrumental ensemble gave him the opportunity to perform technically demanding music with large ensembles, something he seems to have preferred. Steffen Hinger, in the programme notes of his recording, refers to a preface from a collection of music of 1627 in which Selle shows his disliking of small forces. It therefore doesn't surprise that several pieces for two to five choirs figure on both discs.

The main work on the disc of Weser-Renaissance is Selle's Historia der Auferstehung, which is set for 8 and 14 voices with basso continuo. The text is based on a gospel harmony published by Johannes Bugenhagen in 1526 which was also the basis for the Auferstehungshistorie by Heinrich Schütz. One of the remarkable aspects of this work is that it is almost twice as long as Schütz's, because it also contains the story about the apostle Thomas and Jesus' Ascension. Unfortunately this part of the work has been left out. After the passage where Jesus sends his apostles to spread his message we hear the Conclusio: "Now thank we all God, who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen." Of course, there was enough space on the disc to perform the whole work, but evidently Manfred Cordes preferred to present only the first part, together with other compositions for Easter. I regret this as it is doubtful whether we will ever get the opportunity to hear the work completely.

It is an interesting and expressive work. The role of the Evangelist is sung by a tenor, who is supported by viole da gamba and bc. The words of Jesus are accompanied by two violins and bc. There is a strong connection between text and music, and Selle doesn't miss any opportunity to translate dramatic moments into his music. This is well explored in the performance: the ensemble is excellent, and in particular the interpretation of the role of the Evangelist deserves much praise. The singer of this part isn't mentioned, but I assume it is Julian Podger. Wolf-Matthias Friedrich is no less impressive in his performance of the role of Jesus.

As in Hamburg Selle had a considerable number of musicians at his disposal he adapted some earlier works by extending the scoring. For instance, the first piece on Weser-Renaissance's disc, A Domino factum est illud, was originally scored for alto, two tenors, bass and bc, but in Hamburg Selle added two soprano parts, which resulted in a six-part chorus. In order to enrich the ritornellos and the newly-created sinfonia he added two four-part instrumental groups, which are played here by strings and wind respectively. And again we find some good text expression, in particular as a change of rhythm is used to express the joy in the last line: "let us rejoice and be glad in it".

The hymns which were an important part of church music in the 17th century frequently appear in Selle's compositions. They are often the subject of chorale variations. Selle arranges them in various ways as the pieces on the CPO disc show. Unfortunately again they are mostly incomplete: from Christ lag in Todesbanden we only get verses 1,2,5 and 6, and of the 10 verses of Jesus Christus, unser Heiland we hear only the first four. It is quite possible that in Selle's time not all verses were always performed, but as a CD recording has a documentary character it had been nice to hear these two works to the full.

Christ ist erstanden is another well-known hymn which is here used for a chorale concerto. The sinfonia contains a virtuoso violin part, and it is tempting to believe that this part was intended to be played by Johann Schop, one of North-Germany's most famous violinists. One of the smallest-scored pieces on the programme is Erstanden ist der Herre Christ for tenor and three instruments, which dates from an earlier period in Selle's career. Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt is also assumed to be written before Hamburg. It is written in motet-style and set for eight voices in a high and a low choir. In the programme notes Jürgen Neubacher refers to the fact that Selle owned many collections of music by Lassus, showing his great interest in counterpoint.

The second disc concentrates mostly on pieces on biblical texts; only a couple are based on chorales. Fortunately there are no duplications, so with these two discs our knowledge of Thomas Selle's music has greatly improved. The large-scale works are quite impressive, in particular the two last pieces which are recorded by the Thomas Selle-Ensemble. Nun lob mein Seel den Herren is written for four choirs, three of which are given to voices by Selle. Here two choirs are scored with vocal soloists and wind, one with the vocal choir and the fourth with strings, obbligato trumpets and timpani. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is set for no less than five choirs. Here Selle prescribes the scoring of one of the choirs: is should be a chorus fidicinus, an ensemble of strings, which surround a vocal part, containing the cantus firmus. This part is performed here by children's voices supported by a cornett. A second choir is given to the vocal choir with wind, the third and fourth are scored with high and low voices respectively, whereas the fifth choir is given to another vocal choir with brass and timpani. This disc also contains some pieces in motet-style, either for five voices or for eight voices in two choirs.

In regard to performance practice there isn't much difference between these two recordings. The Thomas Selle-Ensemble performs only one piece a cappella, but otherwise on both discs instruments are often added in order either to play colla voce or to replace voices. This is in line with a wide-spread practice at the time. But technically these two discs are not really comparable: Weser-Renaissance is a professional ensemble with a long and thorough experience in this kind of repertoire. The Thomas Selle-Ensemble is an amateur ensemble which was founded by its director with the specific goal of performing the music of Thomas Selle. Taking this into account the technical level of the ensemble is pretty good. But overall the differences in the interpretations are inevitable: Weser-Renaissance shows a better text expression and more rhythmic flexibility, and there are also more dynamic contrasts than in the recording of the Thomas Selle-Ensemble.

Having said that, I am grateful for the second disc, which - despite its shortcomings - gives a fairly good impression of Selle's splendid music, and I sincerely hope both discs will encourage other ensembles to perform the music of Thomas Selle.

P.S. The disc of the Thomas Selle-Ensemble was released by the Association of Friends of the Thomas Selle-Ensemble. The only address I could find on the disc is the mail address of the president of the Association: Dr. Martin Braun, Lindenplatz 2, 72793 Pfullingen, Germany.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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