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Johann THEILE (1646-1724)
Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi (publ. 1673) (St Matthew Passion)
Weser-Renaissance Bremen / Manfred Cordes
rec. 2019, Stiftskirche Bassum, Germany
CPO 555 285-2 [61:09]

Every year the Netherlands has its Easter ‘St Matthew Passion season’, with performances of J.S. Bach’s monumental work performed all over the country. 2020 has been the year in which the entirety of this tradition was cancelled due to the circumstances around the Corona virus outbreak so, while it is always interesting to encounter a new version of the St Matthew Passion, it is especially poignant to be hearing this text in such a context.

Taught by Heinrich Schütz, Johann Theile is one of those names that has become more of a historical footnote rather than a composer whose music you will encounter in many concert halls. Theile attained the position of Kapellmeister in Wolfenbüttel, one of northern Germany’s cultural centres during the Baroque period and previously, and it was as part of the Lutheran traditions established by Praetorius and Schütz that this St Matthew Passion was written.

Comparisons with Bach’s masterpiece are of no use here. There are no really big chorales and choruses, and the mostly single voice to a part chorus here often provides just brief commentary. This more direct setting of these texts with solo voices to ensemble accompaniment means we get through the narrative relatively swiftly. There is some lovely counterpoint here and there and just a pair of nicely expressive but simple arias, but by following the text in the booklet you can easily be taken up in the drama as it unfolds, restrained and relatively small-scale as it is. Theile was experienced as an opera composer, and his pacing over the arc of the entire work is well done. Stylistically this is a passion that refers more to Renaissance practices in setting gospel texts with the accompaniment of viols, and the feeling is more one of antiquity rather than anything forward-looking. To quote the translated booklet notes, “Despite the tight metrical corset, Theile manages with great skill to avoid monotony in the accompaniment figures and to create fluent transitions between lively modern verbal expression and litany-like recitation recalling traditional liturgical chant.” There are also some quaint translations in the vocal texts, “Und Jesus schrie abermal laut und verschied” coming out as “Jesus, when he had cried out again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.” We get the message, but that one raised a smile.

This is a recording with just the kind of clean and clear sound you want from such a work, with the acoustic of the Stiftskirche in Bassum having just the right halo of resonance for both instruments and voices, all of which are good and most of whom are excellent. With no winds and only a small organ and chitarrone to add colour to the strings there isn’t a great deal of contrast in the sound from beginning to end, and the enjoyment here is more in the detail; you really need to become involved in the text rather than expect to be transported by the music alone. Theile appropriately keeps his best music for the final scenes in this Passion, the strings setting up a forward momentum in their figuration as we move towards the Kreuzigung und Tod, with some of the words of the Evangelist almost Schubertian in their effect. The drama is built cumulatively rather than delivered at crucial points with overt theatricality, and after a final quiet exchange between Pilate and the Evangelist there is a sublime final chorus to leave us feeling pensive, reflective, and spiritually cleansed.

Whatever else is going on in the world, this is certainly a Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi that still communicates with its own poetic power, and you can’t ask much more than that.

Dominy Clements

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