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Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701)
Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten - Christmas Cantatas
Uns ist ein Kind geboren (I) (extr) [02:22]
Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar [08:21]
Da die Zeit erfüllet ward [12:40]
Uns ist ein Kind geboren (II) [08:52]
Machet die Tore weit [09:31]
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe [10:23]
Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten [23:26]
Monika Mauch, Myriam Arbouz (soprano), Marian Dijkhuizen (contralto), Georg Poplutz, Jakob Pilgram (tenor), Raimonds Spogis (bass)
Concerto Palatino, Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. 2017, Chamber music hall of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 155-2 [74:34]

The German musicologist Peter Wollny recently stated, in his liner-notes to a disc containing mostly German music from the second half of the 17th century, that “[ensemble] music between Schütz and Bach, an area long neglected by both scholarship and practice, time and again proves to be an almost inexhaustible treasure trove of skilfully crafted, expressive compositions that even today have lost none of their original fascination”. One of the composers who has suffered from this relative neglect is Johann Schelle, who from 1676 until his death acted as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. From that angle this disc has to be welcomed, even though the programme does not include as many first recordings as Klaus Winkler claims in his liner-notes (oddly enough this part of his notes has not been included in the English translation). In fact, so far as I know only three pieces are new to the catalogue: the version for three voices of Uns ist ein Kind geboren (track 4), Da die Zeit erfüllet ward and Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe. The largest work, Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten, has actually been recorded twice before.

Schelle was born in Geising in Saxony. He spent his formative years in the electoral chapel in Dresden, which was then under the direction of Heinrich Schütz. At the age of 16 he entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig, and he continued his studies in music with the then Thomaskantor Sebastian Knüpfer. When just 22 years old he was appointed Kantor in Eilenburg and in 1676 was elected to succeed Knüpfer as Thomaskantor. The Leipzig town council had made an excellent choice as Schelle’s reputation soon spread throughout central Germany. “One contemporary witness reports that listeners ‘flew in like bees’ for the ‘sweet honey’ of Schelle’s church music”, Peter Wollny writes in his liner-notes to Robert King’s recording of sacred music by Schelle (Hyperion, 2001, reissued 2011). He connects it with Schelle’s style of composing. “What was presented to the audience was a new style – a sweet and delightful sound, combined with carefully-chosen texts and performed with a well-developed sense for big effects and refinement”.

One of the reforms under Schelle’s direction was the replacement of Latin hymns with his own settings on German texts. That brought him into conflict with the mayor, but he won the support of the city’s theologians. In his extant oeuvre we only find a few Latin pieces; the great majority is in German. The programme shows that the chorale took a central place in his output, in contrast to that of his teacher Schütz.

The Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten connects him to Schütz. The latter composed his Christmas Oratorio (Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi) in 1664, and Schelle performed the Actus Musicus in Leipzig on Christmas Eve 1683. As in Schütz’ Historia Schelle places the story of Jesus’ birth in the centre, based on the gospel of Luke. However, in contrast to Schütz, whose oratorio was performed at the court in Dresden, he frequently uses Christmas hymns, which were popular among the faithful in Leipzig. One of them is the thread of this work, ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her’. The stanzas of Luther’s hymn are set in various forms: free aria, four-part harmonization, sacred concerto or instrumental quotation. In addition several other hymns are quoted: ‘In dulci jubilo’, ‘Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ’, ‘Lobt Gott ihr Christen allzugleich’ and ‘Wir Christenleut’. These were part of a Leipzig hymnbook which had been published the year before. The instrumental scoring is remarkable as it was rather old-fashioned in Schelle’s time and included cornetts, sackbuts and viols, but also shawms (Schreyerpfeifen). Unfortunately the latter are not used in this recording, unlike in the two previous recordings (Roland Wilson, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1993; Howard Arman, Capriccio, 1994).

Uns ist ein Kind geboren takes its starting point at verse 6 of Isaiah 9. There are two concertos with this title in Schelle’s oeuvre. The first is a setting for five voices, six instruments and basso continuo. From this one we get only the opening tutti section (track 1); Roland Wilson recorded the entire piece. The second setting is for two tenors, bass, two oboes or violins and basso continuo. After the text from Isaiah (the dictum) there are four verses on a free text, allocated to tenor I, tenor II, bass and the three voices together respectively, and separated by ritornellos.

Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar is for 19 voices and instruments, which is reminiscent of Michael Praetorius’s large-scale chorale arrangements. The voices constitute one choir, the instruments are divided into three choirs (strings, cornetts and sackbuts, trumpets and timpani). In the six verses soli and tutti alternate; they are separated by ritornellos.

Schelle often repeats the opening section at the end. That is the case, for instance, in Da die Zeit erfüllet ward for five voices. It opens with a sonata, which is followed by a section for soprano I and tutti. Next are four verses, again for solo voice (from soprano II to bass) and tutti, and the piece closes with the opening section. The same happens with Machet die Tore weit, a setting of Psalm 24, vs 9, a piece for the first Sunday of Advent. The opening dictum is for soli and tutti and is repeated at the end. In between are verses for the four voices (soprano to bass), separated by ritornellos. Every verse consists of two sections, the second is always the same.

Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe is obviously for Christmas and deals with the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angels. It opens with a sonata after which the two sopranos sing the chorus of the angels. The three lower voices probably symbolize the shepherds, who hear the message of the angels. This is one of the few pieces in Schelle’s oeuvre which explicitly require five ripienists, in addition to the solo voices. The instrumental scoring includes two trumpets, three sackbuts and timpani, two violins and basso continuo.

Every disc devoted to Schelle is most welcome, and that goes for the present production as well. It may include not as many first recordings as the liner-notes suggest, but it is nice that three fine pieces are now available for the first time. Overall I have enjoyed these performances. The Kölner Akademie is a good ensemble, whose instrumentalists are joined by those admirable specialists on cornett and sackbut of Concerto Palatino. Among the singers I would like to mention especially the two sopranos Monika Mauch and Myriam Arbouz, as well as Georg Poplutz, in particular because of his role as Evangelist in the Actus Musicus. I am less enthusiastic about Raimonds Spogis, whose singing lacks some subtlety, and about Marian Dijkhuizen, whose slight but clearly audible vibrato damages the ensemble. It is regrettable that in the Actus Musicus shawms are omitted; their parts are played by recorders, but that is not the same. In that respect I prefer the older recordings of this piece. In particular Roland Wilson’s recording is a bit more consistent in regard to interpretation.

The CPO booklet includes several errors. The most annoying is the error in the numbering of the tracks: two tracks have number [6], which is especially inconvenient if you are looking for a particular track.

All said and done, if you look for something less familiar for the Christmas period, this is certainly a disc to investigate.

Johan van Veen

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