Thomas Selle lived from 1599 to 1663; he grew up in Germany during the prolonged horror of the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648). So severe were the depredation, deprivation, destruction and slaughter of that period that it's little wonder that many creative people turned to Arcadia, the idealized world of myth… nymphs, satyrs, nature. So too Selle. Here's a splendid CD from Christophorus by the eight-strong Ensemble Metamorfosi, which joins only one other CD (Die Auferstehung Christi with Weser Renaissance under Manfred Cordes on CPO 777396-2) in the current catalog devoted entirely to Selle's music.
Listen for but a minute or two and you're likely to be puzzled by this absence: Selle's music is spare; intense and heated; sure and controlled; focused; obviously distilled, rather than an outpouring. Analogous, almost, to ways that composers of song in the early twentieth century reacted against high Romanticism, so Selle wrote in a form consciously reduced from the massive choral polyphony, of Palestrina, say. Clearly influenced by the world of the madrigal as much as by mediaeval and early Renaissance German song, Selle's rhythms and cadences are also redolent at times (Was betrübstu dich [tr.2], for instance) of those of the Italians, especially Monteverdi. Indeed the languages of texts set by Selle on this CD include Latin and Spanish (the refrain in Beso las manos [tr.3], for example) as well as German. Indeed, remarkable is the number of non-German words and terms in the texts throughout. For all his concentration and intensity, Selle clearly was no isolate.
And he was very much his own person. In fact, there are moments when an almost eccentric – certainly passionate – musical personality emerges: both O Unglück! [tr.12] and A Domino factum est [tr.13], for example… have sharp shifts in tempo and key; and (intentionally) distorted phrasing with notable chromaticism. The sound is closer to that of the kind of experimentation current with Monteverdi and his contemporaries in Italy than with conventional North European topoi. Importantly, the singers and players of Ensemble Metamorfosi neither make too much of this intention of Selle's to draw attention to his plight; nor ignore it as something routine. This balance may well be so effective because Selle is surely describing the reaction of any thinking and feeling person to Cupid's dart; and by implication – his own.
Selle's music, its rhythms, phrasing, range, contrasts, and shifts in color are remarkable. They're expected as well as unexpected. The progress of layers and turns in, Ach, mein hertzliebes Jesulein, for example [tr.5] show just this richness. They're surprising – particularly for their lack of linearity. Although strophic, variation to support the poignancy, hope, despair, love, regret and other emotions of the text is given priority over conventional form.
The enunciation, expression and combination of voices with instruments are all similarly directed to maximum impact throughout the dozen and a half or so works on the CD. It's emphatically not a recital or performance to illustrate what Selle was capable of; which is much. It's an exercise in full and happy communication of the feelings of the composer – and his undoubted abilities to convey them in ways that still appeal to us today. Listen to the forward momentum, unflinching certainty and intensity of Kompt her und shawet [tr.15] ("Come here and see the works of the Lord…"). There's a balanced earnestness on the part of the singers. A style of delivery that's immediate… they're leaning pointedly yet almost imperceptibly towards the listener to invite him/her in. They are performing having painstakingly acquired a great deal of expertise and insight into the world of Selle. They do not need florid over-expression. They are conveyors, not advocates.
This approach – and the relationship between voice and instruments – is fully in keeping with contemporary Lutheran practice. As is the unambiguous identification of the enemies of Protestantism as the Turks and Pope! The performers approach such parts of the text with detachment. After all, Selle had patrons and those on whom he otherwise relied for his livelihood: Magna Dei bonitas [tr.6] is rich in local, contemporary and specifically personal reference. The text is even by Selle himself.
The essays in the excellent accompanying booklet (which also contains the texts – in (the original and) German only) explain the premises on which this CD was built. The performers are mediators of what they acknowledge may be a very alien idiom to modern audiences. Their purpose seems to be not to shun the alien, nor dress it up or pull its musical or textual teeth. Rather to embrace it in full so as to elucidate and hence elicit as much as is in common between the concerns of those who had lived (or were about to live) for a generation under constant war.
In fact, the music on the CD is also a representative cross-section of Selle's music written between 1624 and 1634 – at the height of the Thirty Years War. It selects items from no fewer than eleven volumes published in that decade. Even though each of these had its own theme, there is a coherence to the collection on the CD which has to be attributed to Selle's own integrity and strength of musical purpose. The performers respect and reflect this admirably. Again, the commentary in the CD's booklet outlines the origins of and reasons for choosing the items.
The acoustic of the CD is full yet not too spacious: appropriate for the sense of focus, rather than effect, which this music needs. If Selle is a new name and you are interested in seventeenth century German repertoire, this is a collection that will satisfy. If you've already begun to explore the composer's world and work, it's one you'll not want to miss. The sense of purpose and Selle's particular response to the world around him do make the music less "categorizable" than, say, a collection of madrigals or a single cantata. But it's vibrant, even passionate, music performed with as much delicacy as dedication and worth the kind of close attention that this production has obviously aimed for. It has attained it admirably.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey