It is perhaps unsurprising that the towering figure of Johann
Sebastian Bach has rather eclipsed other occupants of the post of Thomaskantor
in the city of Leipzig. However, recently some of Bach’s predecessors
have begun to emerge from his shadow. Hyperion, for example have released
fine CDs by Robert King and the King’s Consort devoted to the music of
Sebastian Knüpfer (Cantor from 1657 to 1676) and Johann Kuhnau (Cantor
1701-1722 and Bach’s immediate predecessor). King has also made a disc,
which I have not yet heard, of music by Schelle, who was Cantor from 1676
to 1701. Now Roland Wilson has also turned his attention to Schelle and,
happily for collectors, has only duplicated one item in King’s collection,
namely Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele.
The artists performing here consist of Musica Fiata,
a small band, specializing in sixteenth and seventeenth century music,
founded in 1976, presumably by Roland Wilson. The choir, La Capella
Ducale was formed in 1992 to complement the orchestra’s activities and
consists, on this recording at least, of ten singers, five each of soloists
and ripieni choristers. All the performers are consistently lively
and alert and sound completely at home with the music.
Johann Schelle was born in 1648, the son of the church
music director in a small German village. At the age of six he went
as a boy chorister to the Dresden electoral court where Heinrich Schütz
presided over the music. Eventually, at the age of 19 he enrolled at
the university in Leipzig and became a pupil of Sebastian Knüpfer.
Three years later, in 1670, Schelle was appointed music director at
the nearby town of Eilenburg but when Knüpfer died in 1676 Schelle
successfully applied for the vacant post of Thomaskantor back
in Leipzig, an appointment he retained until his death.
Roland Wilson has chosen a varied and well-balanced
programme. To what extent the works here are fully representative of
Schelle’s output I cannot say. Presumably, as Cantor at St. Thomas’
church he would, like Bach, have been required to provide new music
regularly. Thus, I assume his output of compositions was substantial
and, of course, we only have seven to hear on this disc. What does seem
clear from Wilson’s programme, however, is that Schelle was a confident,
often extrovert composer and one, moreover, who was intelligently responsive
to the texts that he set. It would also seem that he had some expert
musicians on hand in Leipzig for he often stretches both singers and
instrumentalists. Another feature of his music is his ability to compose
concisely. It will be noted that no piece included here lasts more than
A couple of the chosen works are for soloists only.
Ah! Quam multa sunt peccata (‘Ah, how many are my sins’) is a
setting of an anonymous neo-Latin poem for alto solo and small ensemble
(track 6). This, it is thought, was not designed for liturgical use.
The soloist, Ralf Popken, sings fluently and well. I must say, though,
that I find his tone just a touch too rich for my taste; occasionally
it sounds almost effusive. In Gott, sei mir gnädig (‘God,
be gracious to me’) Popken is joined by soprano, Constanze Backes (track
2). This work sets verses from the lengthy penitential Psalm 51 and
the voices are accompanied by strings with telling interjections from
an obbligato trumpet. For the most part the scoring is fittingly dark
(the trumpet is used plaintively) but this doesn’t mean that Schelle
eschews florid vocal writing for his soloists, both when they are duetting
and also when they are singing individually. I felt the Italianate influence
was particularly pronounced in this piece.
All five soloists join together for Die auf den
Herren hoffen (‘Those who hope in the Lord’) which is a setting
of words from Psalm 125 (track 4). Despite the use of five soloists
this is one of the more intimate works in the programme (there is no
ripieno chorus). It’s a good example of Schelle’s ability to
write concisely and its inclusion between two much more extravagantly
scored works reflects credit on Roland Wilson’s programme planning.
The remaining works employ most if not all the available
forces. Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet (‘God so loved the world’),
which opens the programme does so in impressive style (track 1). It
is a cantata for the day after Whit Sunday and as befits this celebratory
time in the ecclesiastical calendar, it is an exuberant work, festive
with trumpets and drums, offering a reflection on verses from the third
chapter of St John’s Gospel. The author of the liner notes believes
this to be a late work by Schelle. By contrast the other really celebratory
work, Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (‘Praise the Lord, my soul’)
is thought to date from before 1688 and to have been written for a special
occasion (track 7). It is a rather splendid offering, again featuring
jubilant trumpets and timpani, which brings the disc to a rousing conclusion.
Perhaps the most significant work included here is
the cantata Durch Adams Fall (‘Through Adam’s fall’) which was
written for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, probably as part
of a full-year cantata cycle penned by Schelle in 1683-4. This, the
notes tell us, was important because it was one of the first such cycles
in the Lutheran church and so very much a precursor of the subsequent
cycles by Bach. The present cantata (track 5) includes verses from the
Gospel of the day, chapter 7 of St. Mark’s Gospel, which relates the
miracle of Christ making the dumb man speak. These verses are interwoven
with reflections on the Gospel narrative. Schelle’s cantata is an impressive
piece of work, laid out in 20 vocal and instrumental parts and serious
in tone as befits the subject. It is another concentrated composition
which mixes brief choral movements with short arias. The Gospel passages
themselves are set to a mix of accompanied recitative and arioso. The
work of all the soloists is good here.
As a team the soloists are a touch uneven, though none
is less than satisfactory. I’ve already mentioned the alto. The two
sopranos, Constanze Backes and Hedwig Westhoff-Düppmann are agile
(they need to be!) but, to my ears, when singing in alt they
display a tendency to a rather shrill, piping tone and not every note
is hit right in the centre. The tenor, Markus Brutscher has a light
and heady voice which is ideally suited for this type of music. Though
his voice is not especially distinctive his contributions are always
wholly reliable. Best of all is the bass, Harry van der Kamp. He has
a full and pleasing tone and his voice, which is just light enough to
be agile in divisions, has presence. He sets his stall out in his very
first solo (track 1, 2’22") and is admirably firm and consistent
throughout the programme.
The disc comes with reasonable notes in German, English
and French though, since Schelle’s music is likely to be unfamiliar
to many I would have welcomed a bit more detail both about the music
and about the man himself. There are full texts, in Latin or German,
as appropriate but they are only translated into English. The recorded
sound is very good and clear.
This recital is rewarding on two counts. Firstly, the
music is of intrinsic quality and interest in its own right. Secondly,
however, this release helps to put into context the vocal music of J.
S. Bach, giving us an insight into the tradition from which he sprung,
on which he built and which his genius enabled him to transcend and
develop so significantly.
This is a fine disc on which the music is consistently
performed with spirit and commitment. I have enjoyed listening to it;
moreover, I have learned from it. I can strongly recommend it to all
collectors with an interest in music of the German baroque period but
it is well worth investigation by the general collector also.