musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714 - 1785): "Siehe, der Herr kömmt - Christmas & Advent Cantatas"

Hanna Herfurtner, soprano; Franziska Gottwald, contralto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Mauro Borgioni, bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Jan 30 - Feb 2, 2019, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 555 278-2 (© 2019) (66'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Merk auf, mein Herz, und sieh dorthin (HoWV II.12); Siehe, der Herr kömmt (HoWV II.3); So du mit deinem Munde bekennest Jesum (HoWV II.8); Wohl dem, der nicht wandelt im Rat der Gottlosen (HoWV II.6)

[ripieno] Bethany Seymour, Annike Stegger, soprano; Isabel Desirée, Johanna Koch, contralto; Niek van den Dool, tenor; Konstantin Paganetti, bass
Cordula Breuer, Gudrun Knop, transverse flute; Tatjana Zimre, Antje Thierbach, oboe; Simon Poirier, Jairo Pablo Gimeno Veses, horn; Catherine Martin, Frauke Heiwolt, Luna Oda, Antonio de Sarlo, Jesús Merino Ruiz, Katarina Todorovic, violin; Bettina Ecken, Angel Munoz Vella, viola; Klaus Dieter Brandt, cello; Thomas Falke, double bass; Willi Kronenberg, harpsichord, organ

Gottfried August Homilius was generally considered the main composer of sacred music in Protestant Germany in the second half of the 18th century. In his capacities as Kantor of the Kreuzkirche and music director of the three main churches in Dresden from 1755 until his death, he produced a large amount of cantatas and oratorios. As since 1742 he was also organist of the Kreuzkirche, he also wrote a fair number of organ works, all arrangements of then common hymns. It is only since the beginning of this century that he is taken seriously. The regular publication of scores by Carus Verlag bears witness to that.

If I am not mistaken, the stream of recordings which were released during the first about fifteen years of this century, has run dry a little. Therefore the release of a disc with four cantatas for Christmastide is most welcome. They are part of the more than 180 cantatas from Homilius's pen that have come down to us. There is still much to discover, and this disc is an important contribution, especially as all four cantatas appear on disc for the first time.

The basic structure of Homilius's cantatas is not very different from what was common in cantatas of the first half of the century (Bach, Telemann, Fasch, Graupner). They usually open with a chorus and close with a chorale. In between are recitatives and arias. Now and then Homilius moves away from this pattern. One of their features is that the opening chorus is mostly a setting of a text taken from the Bible, a so-called dictum. Whereas in Bach's cantatas the accompaniment in the recitatives is mostly confined to the basso continuo, Homilius generally prefers accompanied recitatives. The choral parts bear witness to the change in musical aesthetics, as they are mostly homophonic; polyphony is rare in Homilius's cantatas. The arias are often longer than in cantatas of the previous era: most of them are over six minutes; many are technically demanding, and invite to include a cadenza.

The cantatas on the present disc are written for the second, third and fourth Sundays of Advent and for the first day of Christmas.

Siehe, der Herr kömmt mit viel tausend Heiligen is for the second Sunday of Advent. The scoring is for four voices and an orchestra of two transverse flutes, two oboes, two horns, strings and basso continuo. The opening chorus is a setting of two verses from the letter of the apostle Jude. The text refers to the Last Judgment and this stamps the character of this cantata: "Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all". Next are a recitative and aria for tenor. The latter opens with the phrase "Then shall the sinners of the earth tremble and howl, crying for death". It is no surprise that Homilius makes use of chromaticism to express the text. A recitative for soprano ("O Christians, do not dare enrage the Saviour!") is followed by a duet for soprano and bass, which is in fact a dialogue between the believer and Jesus ("Then my wrath shall flare forth. All who know me shall be saved"). Whereas in the opening chorus the two horns participate, here the two singers are accompanied by two flutes. This cantata derives from the standard pattern in that it has no closing chorale.

In the cantata for the third Sunday of Advent, Wohl dem, der nicht wandelt im Rat der Gottlosen, the orchestra is the same as in the previous cantata, except that there are no flute parts. The opening chorus is a setting of the two opening verses of Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly". The contrast between the two verses is emphasized in that the first section is homophonic, and the second has the form of a fugue. Here Homilius shows his skills in counterpoint. The temptation of the vanities of the world are the subject of this cantata, in line with the opening chorus. Two arias, for tenor and bass respectively, embrace a soprano recitative. The closing chorale is the sixth stanza from the hymn Ich dank dir lieber Herre (Johann Kolrose, 1535): "Let me acknowledge your word before this evil world". Bach included this stanza in the first version of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147a).

So du mit deinem Munde bekennest Jesum is a cantata for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The orchestra consists again of pairs of oboes and horns, plus strings and basso continuo. The opening chorus is a dialogue between a solo bass, supported by the orchestra playing in unison, and four-part choir. The text is taken from St Paul's letter to the Romans (ch 10, vs 9): "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus (...), thou shalt be saved". This indicates the character of the cantata, which is about God's glory. The second half of the tenor aria opens with the phrase: "Make haste to spread his glory". The soprano aria claims that the faithful "remain after you have purged the sinners from the earth". The cantata ends with the chorale 'Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren', the 15th stanza of the hymn Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen (Paul Gerhardt, 1653). Bach used this stanza in his Christmas Oratorio.

Merk auf, mein Herz, und sieh dorthin, a cantata for the first day of Christmas, is scored for four voices and an orchestra of two oboes, two horns, strings and basso continuo. Here, the basic pattern of Homilius's cantatas is reversed. It opens with a chorale and closes with a chorus. The opening chorale is the 7th stanza of Luther's hymn Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her. The cantata is dominated by the joy about Jesus's birth. The accompanied recitative for tenor is similar to the way the Passion story is treated in 18th-century Passion oratorios: "But what do I see here? A child lying in a manger, in the gloomy stable." In the ensuing aria, the alto takes the role of the angel announcing Jesus's birth to the shepherds: "Put aside fear and dread, today great joy shall befall you and all the world. The Saviour is born is David's city". In another accompanied recitative, the bass has the role of the believer, who puts himself into the shoes of a shepherd: "My faith no longer doubts, but trusts the word of God's messenger. (...) What more do I hear? A choir of seraphim (...)". The cantata ends with the choir of the angels: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men".

This disc confirms the contemporary opinion that Homilius was an excellent composer of sacred music, as do previous recordings of his cantatas, oratorios and motets. In order to assess Homilius's music fairly and really enjoy it, one has to realise that he belongs to a different era than Bach and that his cantatas should not be compared with the latter's. Those who have an open ear for the music of Bach's sons, will certainly appreciate what Homilius has to offer. These four cantatas are fine music and a nice addition to the Christmas repertoire. They are served well by the performers. Georg Poplutz plays a major role here, and over the years he has developed into one of the best interpreters of German sacred music of the 17th and 18th centuries, also thanks to his excellent diction and articulation, which guarantees that the text is always clearly intelligible. Hanna Herfurtner has a nice voice and a fluent style of singing, which is very appropriate here. Mauro Borgioni brings the right amount of weight and authority into his recitatives and arias, and the joy about Jesus's birth comes perfectly off in Franziska Gottwald's performance of the alto aria in the Christmas cantata. In the choral sections, the soloists are joined by six ripienists. The orchestra is in fine form here, and the obbligato parts are convincingly executed.

This disc makes one want more Homilius.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Mauro Borgioni
Franziska Gottwald
Hanna Herfurtner
Georg Poplutz
Kölner Akademie

CD Reviews