Revealing light shone on a contemporary of Bach at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2023 [9] – Stölzel: Selene Consort, Corelli Orchestra / Warwick Cole (director). Cirencester Parish Church, 28.7.2023. (JQ)

Cirencester Parish Church

Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel – Die leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu

For this afternoon concert the Three Choirs Festival was welcomed to the church of St John the Baptist in Cirencester. This is, I believe, the oldest parish church in Gloucestershire. It occupies a prime position on the market square of this fine Cotswold town. Construction of the earliest part of the church began as long ago as 1115. The church today is a handsome building, both inside and outside. It also has a very pleasing acoustic and is an excellent venue for a concert such as this one.

If, like me, you know little or nothing of the composer whose music was played and sung in this concert, some background information may be helpful. (For this paragraph and the next one, I have drawn on the very helpful essay that is carried on the Corelli Orchestra website.) Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel was born in 1690 in a small village in Saxony, near what is now the German/Czech border. He was educated at Leipzig University and his subsequent career as a composer included spells working in Breslau, Gera, Bayreuth, Prague, and Innsbruck. From 1720 to his death in 1749 he was Kapellmeister in Gotha. Apparently, much of his music was lost during the eighteenth century but, in fact, many of us will have long been familiar with a piece by Stölzel, possibly without knowing it: the famous aria ‘Bist du bei mir’, long attributed to Bach (as BWV 508) is, in fact, from Stölzel’s opera Diomedes.

Stölzel composed Die leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu (The Love of Jesus Suffering and Dying on the Cross) in 1720, right at the start of his tenure in Gotha; it was first performed there at Easter that year. The work was performed quite extensively over the next couple of decades: Bach himself gave a performance in 1734. However, after Stölzel’s death the work lapsed into obscurity. It seems that quite a lot of his music survives in a collection in the German town of Sondershausen, including a set of parts for this particular work, which was performed at the Sondershausen court in the 1730. Warwick Cole obtained copies of these parts and by collating them with the original libretto from Stölzel’s performance in Gotha in 1720, it was possible to produce an edition from which he and the Corelli Orchestra gave the UK premiere of the work as recently as 2018.

As Warwick Cole explained in an excellent programme note, the work has a very clear and well-defined structure. The text is a poetic paraphrase of the Passion story. The work is cast in four parts and plays for about two hours. Within that four-part structure there are twenty-two ‘reflections’ on the Passion, each one preceded by a narration by the Evangelist. The reflections themselves all consist of an accompanied recitative and an aria; the members of the Selene Consort shared these ‘reflections’ among themselves. In these solos the singer is described as Gläubige Seele (Believing Soul). At the end of each of these sections, the choir – Die Christliche Kirche (Christian Church) – sings a chorale. The structure is easy to grasp. What I am not entirely clear about is whether Die leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu was designed for liturgical use, as Bach’s Passion settings were, which would have included the interpolation of a sermon. Perhaps so, since Bach is known to have performed the work in St Thomas’s, Leipzig in 1734.

It was instructive to experience Stölzel’s piece less than 24 hours after hearing Bach’s St John Passion (review). I am sure there were umpteen good, practical reasons why the Stölzel had to follow the Bach in the Festival programme, but part of me wished the works could have been heard in the reverse order because, inevitably, Bach’s masterpiece casts a long shadow. That said, within a few minutes it was clear to me that Stölzel’s piece could definitely stand on its own two feet.

The performance was modest in scale and, as such, conveyed a welcome intimacy to the music. There were eight singers in the Selene Consort. The Corelli Orchestra, which had impressed in Bach the previous evening, were here in smaller numbers: there were just four strings, an oboe and continuo, which included a bassoon. In addition, there were a handful of occasions when the bassoon, a viola da gamba or a flute provided an obbligato during an aria. Warwick Cole directed the performance from the harpsichord; his playing was suitably sober. The instrumental playing was beyond reproach.

I was impressed with the singing of the Selene Consort, which consisted of two each of sopranos, altos (one male, one female), tenors and basses. All the singers were good but I was especially impressed by the tenors and by the second soprano from whom we heard (the singers were not listed by name in the programme). Stölzel divided the role of the Evangelist between two singers, a tenor and a bass. Both of them related the story well but I thought the tenor was particularly good – indeed, I thought he was the best of all the singers. He sang his narrations with clear, pliant tone, great care for the words, and very expressively; I would not be surprised to learn that he has sung as the Evangelist in performances of one or the other of Bach’s Passions. All eight singers paid pleasing attention to clarity of diction.

The music itself may not be at the exalted level of what we hear in Bach’s Passions but it still made a very positive impression; I came away from the concert understanding why Bach had thought the piece worthy of performance in Leipzig. The accompanied recitatives are often very poetic. I don’t think the arias are as memorable as Bach’s – after all, he stands alone among his contemporaries – but they are consistently good and often very expressive. Some, but not all, of the arias are da capo pieces; without exception, the arias are succinct. It was noticeable that only rarely does Stölzel include an instrumental obbligato; the fact that there is little instrumental – or even vocal – display highlights the intimacy and even the austerity of the work as a whole. One other point is worth making. Quite a number of the chorales use the same melodies that are familiar to us from Bach’s Passions. That is unsurprising since those traditional chorale melodies were common musical currency in Germany at the time; quite possibly those in attendance at a performance of Stölzel’s Passion would have joined in. If so, then probably the chorales would have been sung at a slower tempo than was generally the case on this occasion. I don’t say that to criticise Cole’s tempo selection; quite the contrary. For the most part, the chorales were taken at a fairly lively speed and I thought that was of a piece with the approach to the performance as a whole. Indeed, throughout the performance I felt that tempi were judiciously chosen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at this concert. Would I hear a pale imitation of Bach? Emphatically, that was not the case. Die leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu is a work of genuine substance. The music radiates sincerity, and in this accomplished performance it came across really well. I was very pleased to experience it for the first time and I hope I will have the chance to hear it again. A live performance may be an unrealistic expectation but perhaps one day the work will be recorded, bringing it to a wider audience; it deserves no less. The German label cpo has a reputation for recording unfamiliar music from the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries; this is just the sort of work that might appeal to them. In the meantime, the scholarship and musicianship of Warwick Cole and his colleagues in resurrecting this work from obscurity was fully vindicated this afternoon.

John Quinn    

1 thought on “Revealing light shone on a contemporary of Bach at the Three Choirs Festival”

  1. After this review was published Warwick Cole contacted me with some additional, very interesting information. ‘Just picking upon your point about the liturgical context, something which I didn’t have space to explain in the programme note: the four parts (roughly half an hour each) were intended to form part of four services from the evening of Maundy Thursday and then on Good Friday at 9am, noon and 3pm, so that the narrative plays out in real time so to speak. Obviously, Bach adjusted that pattern, but that was certainly Stölzel’s original conception to observe the real-time continuous observance. Not really possible these days unfortunately.’


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