Although the suffering and death of Jesus Christ was
always an essential element in the theology of the Christian
church of the West, over the years Passiontide was gradually
overshadowed by Christmas as the most important feast of the
ecclesiastical year. It was Martin Luther who put the passion
of Jesus in the centre again. He characterised his theology
as theologia crucis (theology of the cross). As a result
German composers from the 16th to the 18th century who worked
in the Lutheran tradition composed many works for Passiontide.
Among them are the 'Passions', settings of the records of Jesus's
Passion and death in the gospels in the New Testament.
A large part of the German Passion repertoire has been lost.
Once in a while unknown compositions are rediscovered. One of
them is the St Matthew Passion by Johann Christoph Rothe.
Very little is known about him, and the information which is
given in a lexicon of 1792 is not very trustworthy. Therefore
we don't know where and from whom he received his musical education.
We also don't know anything for sure about his musical activities
before his time in Sondershausen where this Passion was found.
It was the residence of the Counts or Princes of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen.
The St Matthew Passion is the oldest piece in the music
library of the court chapel and seems to be the only surviving
composition by Rothe.
It links up with the tradition of the 17th century, which is
represented by the Passions of, for instance, Johann Theile
and Thomas Selle. In its centre is the text of the gospel after
St Matthew, which is delivered in the form of recitatives. They
are all in the key of c minor, and there are no modulations
as we find them in the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. They
are also different from Bach's in that they are closer to the
arioso than to his recitatives. The turbae are scored
for four or five voices, and here the instruments play colla
The recitatives are interrupted by arias, mostly strophic, for
solo voice and basso continuo (plus one duet), with the instruments
playing ritornellos. There are a small number of arias which
show the influence of opera and point in the direction of the
kind of arias which would appear in Passions of the early 18th
century. Most arias are set on free poetic texts, but some use
stanzas from chorales. The number of chorales in this Passion
is limited. There are only two for the choir. The first is Herr
Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott which immediately follows
the introductory Sinfonia, the second O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig
which closes the first part. The instrumental ensemble is small:
two violins, four viole da gamba and basso continuo. Or rather,
as Rothe has specifically indicated, a harpsichord. This is
quite surprising, as one rather expects an organ. It is presumed
the first performance took place at a venue where no organ was
available. In the recording this direction is not followed,
as we mostly hear an organ. Personally I prefer it that way,
but historically it would have been more appropriate to follow
Another interesting aspect regards the number of singers. According
to the manuscript the Passion is scored for 11 voices. This
is exactly the number of characters in the gospel after St Matthew.
This doesn't imply that 11 singers have to be involved. It is
very likely several roles were sung by one singer as is the
case in this recording: the tenor Mirko Ludwig is Caiphas and
one of the false witnesses, and the bass Carsten Krüger sings
the roles of Pilate and of the second false witness. It is tempting
to speculate about the assignation of the arias. There are arias
for three different sopranos, for the alto - here divided over
two singers - and for the tenor as well as the Evangelist. There
are no arias for bass: were no basses available who were good
enough to sing arias? Notable also are the indications for the
tutti. In some cases Rothe has indicated a performance with
solo voices, whereas in other tutti sections they should be
joined by ripienists. In this performance this differentation
has not been respected, as all tutti sections are performed
with one voice per part. I find this disappointing as it seems
likely Rothe had specific reasons for this differentiation.
The text of the St Matthew Passion is by an unknown author,
but is partly based on a text which was used in 1693 by another
composer, Christian Cajus (whose setting has been lost). It
may be true, as the liner-notes state, that the author was "certainly
not an important poet" but the music more than compensates
for the lack of poetical brilliance. The way the story is told
in the recitatives is very vivid and evocative. As far as the
general concept is concerned this Passion is far less 'operatic'
than the Passions of the early 18th century, but in its own
way it is just as dramatic in its description of the events
as they unfold in the night leading to Jesus' death. This isn't
only thanks to the vocal parts, in particular that of the Evangelist,
but also to the instrumental parts, especially those of the
viole da gamba. In highly emotional passages they make use of
bow vibrato, creating a kind of tremolo as was often used in
lamentos in German music of the 17th century.
It is a matter of good fortune that the expressive qualities
of Rothe's St Matthew Passion are explored to the full
in this performance. It is hard to imagine a better delivery
of the part of the Evangelist than is given here by Hans Jörg
Mammel. His eyewitness account is engaged but never overly emotional.
He reveals every detail in the text brilliantly, and as a result
one gets involved in the story right from the start. Wolf Matthias
Friedrich is in every respect his equal. He gives an account
of the role of Jesus which is both authoritative and passionate.
The sopranos Gudrun Sidonie Otto, Margaret Hunter and Manja
Stephan, the altos Christoph Dittmar and Beat Duddeck as well
as the tenor Mirko Ludwig sing their roles and the arias very
well. The bass Carsten Krüger is alright, but his interpretation
of the role of Pilate could have had a little more sting. The
ensemble is immaculate, and so is the playing of the instrumentalists.
To sum up, this Passion is a major discovery and a real enrichment
of the repertoire for Passiontide. I hope it is going to be
published as I am sure many conductors and ensembles will find
this piece a most interesting alternative to the standard repertoire
Johan van Veen