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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger




Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701)
Sacred Concertos and Cantatas
‘Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet’ [13’57"]
‘Gott, sei mir gnädig’ [13’40"]
‘Eructavit cor meum’ [10’44"]
‘Die auf den Herren hoffen’ [7’26"]
‘Durch Adams Fall’ [11’43"]
‘Ah! Quam multa sunt peccata’ [7’41"]
Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele’ [9’52"]
La Capella Ducale
Musica Fiata
Directed by Roland Wilson
Recorded in the Funkhaus, Klaus-von-Bismark Saal, Cologne 3-5 August 2001
CPO 999 841-2 [75’44"]


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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 fourteen minutes.

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.

John Quinn

 



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