Schelle: Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten

Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens
74:34
cpo 555 155-2

This is the first CD devoted solely to Johann Schelle that I am aware of since Robert King’s “Contemporaries of Bach” series. In some ways, that is understandable, since Schelle is not always shy in employing all the forces available to him, so performing his music can be expensive. The rewards are, however, commensurate with the outlay and effort, as these fine performances confirm. I wish I had had time to digest it and write about it ahead of Christmas, and I hope that anyone who saw it before the Festive season grabbed it with both hands – there is something about the story of Christmas that really sets composer’s imaginations alight, and Schelle is no exception. Any excuse to have glorious trumpets for the herald angels, and recorders for the shepherds; that is not to suggest, at all, that the music is derivative or cliched… Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the repertoire chosen is the composer’s varied handling of the Lutheran chorales that form their backbone; the phrases are broken down into fantasy episodes (much in the way Bach would do in his chorale preludes or the opening movements to his cantatas), but some are not so much treated as thematic material for contrapuntal ingenuity but merely introduced by the first few notes played by instruments (perhaps reflecting contemporary practice in congregational hymn singing?); in other movements, both techniques are used. I confess that I found some of the narrative sections of the Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten  a little “challenging” (much in the same way I find Schütz’s Passion “recitative” – frankly – boring…), but the more I listened, the more I “got it”, and it dawned on me that the whole point was that this is not art music, it is real-life liturgical music, speaking from the musical pulpit to the gathered Christian church, relating one of their greatest stories – and they would both know and hang on the Evangelist’s every word. So, an educational experience as well as a valuable musical one. Let’s hope more people will explore Schelle’s music (and Rosenmüller’s and Knüpfer’s before him!)

Brian Clark

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