Johann Christoph ROTHE (1653-1700)
St Matthew Passion (1697)
Cantus Thuringia, Capella Thuringia/Bernhard Klapprott
rec. 14-17 October 2009, Heiligkreuzkirche, Vieselbach, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 554-2 [63:05 + 34:07]
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 voce.
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 Rothe's instructions.
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 for Passiontide.
Johan van Veen
This St Matthew Passion is a major discovery - the performance fully explores its expressive qualities.