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Johann SEBASTIANI (1622 - 1683)
St Matthew Passion
Ina Siedlaczek (soprano), Nathan Medley (alto), Colin Balzer (Evangelist), Jason MsStoots (tenor), Christian Immler (Jesus) (baritone), Jonathan Woody (bass-baritone)
Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble/Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs
Recorded 2017 at the Studio of Radio Bremen, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 204-2 [65:38]

In the course of music history many composers have set the accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death as found in the four Gospels of the Bible. In our time we mostly hear settings from the 18th century: the two Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach and some other comparable pieces or the various settings of the so-called Brockes-Passion whose text is a paraphrase of and meditation on the Passion story. Passions from earlier times are mostly little known.

During the Renaissance Passions were written across Europe. From England we know a Passion by Richard Davy, Orlandus Lassus also composed some Passions, and Tomás Luis de Victoria included several Passions in his collection of music for Holy Week. However, after 1600 no Passions by English or French composers are known, and only a few Italian composers seem to have written settings of the biblical narrative. Such pieces come mostly from Germany. A number of Passions by 17th-century German composers have come down to us, and there can be little doubt that many have been lost. The composers are all from the Protestant part of Germany, and that can easily be explained. The Passion of Christ is the heart of Lutheran theology, often characterised as “theology of the Cross”. The Passion was part of the liturgy and aimed at making the congregation ‘relive’, as it were, Christ's Passion, and that way be reminded once again of its own sins and the necessity of Jesus's suffering and death.

The St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastiani is an historically important work. It was written in 1663 and published in 1672 and is one of the first dramatic settings of the Passion story, which requires the use of instruments and includes non-biblical texts, here in the form of hymns. The work is scored for five voices, six instruments and basso continuo. The part of the Evangelist is set for a tenor, who is accompanied by four viole da gamba and basso continuo. The role of Christ is for a bass, accompanied by two violins and basso continuo. The other characters are allocated to soprano, alto, tenor and bass respectively. The turbae and the introduction and conclusion of the Passion are set homophonically – in order to make sure that the text is intelligible – and scored for five voices. They are performed here by the soloists. This setting strongly differs from the three Passions by Heinrich Schütz, the main composer in 17th-century Germany. These also date from the 1660s, but Schütz sticks to the tradition of setting the text in a more or less ‘neutral’ way, and for voices without instruments. In this respect Sebastiani's setting is more ‘modern’. That also comes to the fore in the way the solo parts are set. They are much more declamatory, and one can easily see here the influence of the Italian style, which Sebastiani became acquainted with during a sojourn in Italy. It includes several specimens of text expression, and one episode is quite striking. “And from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said: ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?’” At these words the viole da gamba and the violins keep silent; both the Evangelist and Christ are accompanied by the basso continuo alone. This has a strongly dramatic effect.

Sebastiani also includes hymns at several places in his Passion. When Jesus asks his disciples to “Sit there, while I go yonder and pray”, Sebastiani inserts Luther’s versification of the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father in Heaven). In his prayer to his Father, Jesus says “If this cup cannot pass from me, then I will drink it, that thy will be done”. This is followed by another stanza from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done, Lord God, on earth as it is in heaven”. One hymn is sung several times: O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig. It is sung the first time when the people cry “He is guilty, and deserves death”. When the cock crows, and Peter realizes that he has denied Jesus, we hear the hymn Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott: “Have mercy on me, O God”. Paul O'Dette, in his liner-notes, mentions that we have to do here with “the first known use of multiple chorales in a passion setting”. Strictly speaking that may be true, but the practice of singing hymns during the performance of a Passion was known. Friedrich Zelle, in the first modern edition of this Passion (1904), states that in the 16th century in southern Germany the reading of the Passion story was sometimes interrupted by the congregational singing of stanzas of the hymn O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß. And in the margin of the St Matthew Passion by Johann Walter (1496-1570) we also find references to hymn stanzas which can be sung by the congregation. However, in Sebastiani’s Passion the hymns are not for congregational singing: they are scored for solo soprano and a quartet of viols.

The Passion closes with the conclusio, performed by the entire ensemble. However, in this recording it is followed by a Danksagungsliedchen, a song of praise “for the bitter suffering of Jesus Christ, which can be sung at the very end after the sermon and the Offertory prayers”. The liner-notes don’t mention it; the fact that this is apparently an addition ad libitum could explain why it has been omitted in the only previous recording of this work, by the Ricercar Consort (Ricercar, 1995). It seems not to be included in the manuscript which is available at the Petrucci Music Library, but it is part of Zelle’s edition, which I mentioned above. Unfortunately he does not discuss it either.

In comparison with the Ricercar recording this modern performance has some clear advantages. It is generally more dramatic, and, in psrticular, the part of the Evangelist is given a more declamatory interpretation. Colin Balzer does a fine job here. I also prefer Ina Siedlaczek’s performance of the hymns to that of Greta De Reyghere with the Ricercar Consort. The various roles are sung well. However, there are also some not unimportant issues. Firstly, it is nice that here the song of praise at the end is included, but unfortunately only three of the five stanzas are sung. Considering the playing time, I don’t understand why two stanzas have been omitted. The same goes for the hymn O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid; two of the eight stanzas are omitted (the Ricercar recording does even worse, with only four). Christian Immler does give a good account of the part of Christ, but I find his vibrato disappointing. I also noted some slips of the tongue. Colin Balzer sings Schädelstadt (town of skulls) rather than Schädelstätt (place of skulls). In the chorale O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid Ina Siedlaczek sings "beschlossen" instead of "beflossen". Such things should have been corrected; after all this is a studio production.

All said and done, however, there is much reason to be happy with this recording. Sebastiani’s Passion is a fine and intriguing work which deserves to be much better known. It is surprising that it has been neglected by ensembles and the recording industry. It would be nice if this new production would result in more performances and recordings.

Johan van Veen

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