Johann Theile – St. Matthew Passion anticipates Bach

Johann Theile was best known as an opera composer. But he did study with Heinrich Schutz and wrote a significant amount of sacred choral works. His St. Matthew Passion dates from 1673 – predating Bach’s by about fifty years.

The work features two solo voices; the Evangelist and Jesus. Although it uses Matthew’s narrative of Christ’s final days, the work doesn’t strictly adhere to scripture. The arias use mostly non-Biblical text. This gives Theile greater freedom to express the drama of the story.

Thiele also uses his instrumental forces to great effect. The Evangelist is supported by two tenor viols; Jesus by two viola da braccios. To audiences of the day, this was no small difference.

In very broad terms, the viola da braccio resembled the modern violin, the tenor viol, the cello. So the instruments that accompany the voices color them differently. The instruments also had their strings tuned to different intervals. This further colored the sound.

Manfred Cordes and the Wexer-Renaissance Bremen give a beautiful and measured performance of this work. The choir has a rich, luminous sound, and the instrumental ensemble radiates warmth. The ensemble makes their 25th season this year, and have produced over 50 recordings.

As expected with this level of experience, both the performances and the recording are first-rate. I was not familiar with Theile at all before auditioning this release. I’m glad I did.

Thiele provides a stylistic link between the Middle Baroque style of Heinrich Schutz and the generation preceding Bach. And it’s a well-constructed work in its own right.

Johann Theile: St. Matthew Passion
Wexer-Renaissance Bremen; Manfred Cordes, diretor

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