Notes and Editorial Reviews
This St Matthew Passion is a major discovery - the performance fully explores its expressive qualities.
Bernhard Klapprott, cond; Hans Jörg Mammel (
); Wolf Matthias Friedrich (
); Gudrun Sidonie Otto, Margaret Hunter, Manja Stephan (sop); Christoph Dittmar, Beat Duddeck (mez); Cantus
Thuringia; Capella Thuringia
CPO 777 554-2 (2 CDs: 97:12
Text and Translation)
With this release cpo accomplishes two firsts: the premiere recording of any music by Johann Christoph Rothe (1653–1700) and of the earliest known surviving oratorio passions from central Germany. As this suggests, Rothe is an obscure figure of whom almost nothing is known. A record from almost a century after his death states that he was born in Roßwein near Dresden and was employed as a singer and violist at the ducal court in Coburg before moving to Sondershausen, north of Erfurt, in 1693, where he composed numerous sacred works for the chapel of the local prince. Since that source erroneously gives Rothe’s date of death as 1720 rather than 1700, even this much is uncertain.
The oratorio passion is a distinct genre from the chorale passion. In the earlier and more austere
passion settings of Heinrich Schütz, tenor (Evangelist) and bass (Jesus) soloists sing the gospel text in vocal lines with relatively little inflection, interrupted only by brief parts assigned to other singers for the minor characters and to a small choir for the crowd (
). The chorale passion, of which Bach’s oratorios are the summit, would greatly expand and enrich this form by rewriting the solo parts to mirror the dramatic action, adding a full instrumental ensemble with independent parts, and extensively supplementing the gospel texts with chorales and solo arias to provide theological commentary and express sympathetic emotional responses. By contrast, the oratorio passion looked more to Italian than German sources for inspiration, with its recast solo parts and added chorales and arias drawing heavily on the madrigal tradition, including the use of
in the instrumental accompaniment. The result, at least in this instance, is a work about midway between Schütz and Bach in style, length, and weight. With only two exceptions, none of the arias and choruses last much more than two minutes, and the instrumental parts primarily serve to decorate and amplify the solo vocal lines rather than to add a new ensemble dimension. The solo arias are given to three sopranos, two altos, one tenor, and the evangelist (also a tenor), but no bass; five of the nine soloists (there are also brief
parts for another tenor and a bass) double as the choir, while the instrumental ensemble of violins, viols, and keyboard continuo (organ and harpsichord) numbers nine.
While not a revelation of a hitherto unknown masterwork, this set nonetheless presents an enjoyable work of considerable musical and musicological interest. All the singers and instrumentalists are excellent; so too is the recorded sound. Informative program notes and full texts with translations are provided (an unfortunate English translation of one aria has an unintended and quite risible double entendre). Those seeking to fill in and expand their knowledge of Baroque sacred music and practice will find this issue well worth acquiring. Congratulations to cpo for another worthy and successful foray into neglected musical terrain.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
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
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, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Matthäus Passion by Johann Christoph Rothe
Margret Hunter (Soprano),
Hans Jörg Mammel (Tenor),
Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Bass),
Gudrun Sidonie Otto (Soprano),
Manja Stephan (Soprano)
Written: 1697; Germany
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