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Johann Friedrich AGRICOLA & Gottfried August HOMILIUS: "Die Auferstehung des Erlösers - Easter Cantatas"

Rahel Maasc, Hannah Morrisonab, Bethany Seymourc, soprano; Elisabeth Popien, contralto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; André Morsch, bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Nov 20 - 23, 2019, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 555 332-2 (© 2020) (77'21")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Friedrich AGRICOLA (1720-1774): Der Gottmensch jauchzta; Die Auferstehung des Erlösers b; Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714-1785): Frohlocket und preiset den göttlichen Held (HoWV I.11)c

[ripienists] Annike Stegger, soprano; Isabel Désirée Johanna Koch, contralto; Niek van den Dool, tenor; Andrey Akhmetov, bass
Géraldine Clément, Thomas Wormitt, transverse flute; Mario Topper, Ales Ambrosi, oboe; Feyzi Çokgez, Alexander Kolomiets, bassoon; Yoichi Murakami, Christopher Weddle, horn; Hannes Rux-Brachtendorf, Marc Demi, Elsa Scheidig, trumpet; Catherine Martin, Katarina Todorovic, Luna Oda, Antonio de Sarlo, Laura von der Goltz, Ye-Young Hwang, violin; Rafael Roth, Johanna Brückner, viola; Amarillis Dueñas Castán, Julie Maas-Reimers, cello; Jakob Hornbachner, violone; Willi Kronenberg, harpsichord, organ; Alexander Schubert, timpani

Although Easter is one of the main feasts in the ecclesiastical calender of the Christian church, the amount of music written for this feast is rather limited, if we compare it what is written for Passiontide or Christmas. The main reason may be that there is no Easter season, as there is a Christmas season (spanning the period from the first Advent to Candlemas) and the period of Lent, which precedes Easter. That said, the music that has been written, is not often performed; that even goes for Johann Sebastian Bach's Easter Oratorio. That may well have a very practical reason: ensembles usually focus on music for Passiontide, and after having performed a Passion, a Stabat mater or settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah a number of times, they take a break after Easter. I have seldom heard of Easter concerts, unlike Christmas or Passion concerts. Unfortunately, this situation has also influenced the number of recordings of Easter music. From that perspective, the present disc is of great importance. It brings together sacred works by two composers from the generation of Bach's sons.

Since the beginning of our century, the oeuvre of Gottfried August Homilius has received quite some attention, partly due to the publication of his music by Carus, which has gone hand in hand with CD recordings. In comparison, the number of recordings of music by Johann Friedrich Agricola is very small. Unfortunately, that is not just a matter of neglect on the side of performers and the recording industry. The fact is that a large part of his oeuvre, which probably was not very large anyway, has been lost. In 2014, CPO released a disc with three Christmas cantatas, performed under the direction of Michael Alexander Willens. That was a substantial part of Agricola's extant oeuvre in the category of oratorios and cantatas. The main part of what has been preserved, are songs and odes, a popular genre in the third quarter of the 18th century.

Agricola was born in Dobitschen in Saxe-Altenburg as the son of a government agent. In 1738 he enrolled in Leipzig University where he studied law. He became a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach and took part in performances of his church music and of the Collegium Musicum. At this time he also started to copy works by Bach. In 1741 he moved to Berlin where he took lessons from Johann Joachim Quantz. There he became acquainted with some of the main poets of the time and the leading composers of the day, including Carl Heinrich Graun and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. For some time he enjoyed the patronage of Frederick the Great who appointed him as court composer in 1751. Their relationship was not without problems: Agricola married one of the opera singers, against Frederick's wishes as he wanted his opera stars to remain single. In 1759 Graun died and Agricola succeeded him as director of the Opera, although without the title of Kapellmeister. Frederick was very critical of Agricola's operas, some of which he ordered to be rewritten almost completely.

Agricola was also active as a performer: he worked as organist in the tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach and directed the first performance of Graun's oratorio Der Tod Jesu, in which he also sang the tenor part. It was part of a trilogy of oratorios or cantatas about the life of Jesus from the pen of Carl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-1798). The first part was Die Hirten bey der Krippe zu Bethlehem and the third Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu. Agricola composed music for the first and the third part; the first had been thought lost until it turned up in the Singakademie archive.

The present disc offers two sacred works: a cantata and a piece, called ein musikalisches Gedicht - "a musical poem", which in its form is not substantially different from the oratorio by Homilius included here. In the work-list in New Grove this work is marked as being lost. It seems possible that it was also found in the archive of the Singakademie, but the liner-notes on this work are rather short. It is also mentioned that the lyrics were written by a certain Mr Buchholz, Rektor of the St Petrikirche. However, New Grove mentions C.G. Lieberkühn as their author. The work was first performed on Easter Sunday 1758 in St Petri's. The scoring is for four voices - solo and tutti - and an orchestra of two transverse flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, three trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The entire orchestra is involved in the opening chorus in ABA form, which is a setting of Psalm 16, vs 9: "Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices. My flesh also will rest in hope". Next follows an accompanied recitative for bass, who acts as Evangelist, reporting about the events on Easter morning: "The earth is quaking (...), there a hill caved in, the rocks shook. An angel descends full of splendour (...)". The ensuing tenor aria urges the seraphims to adorn "the song of the most beautiful night" (the English translation completely misses the imperative in the text) and "welcome the resurrected hero". This aria has a strongly operatic character, and the word "Gesang" (song) is set to extended coloratura. The tenor then takes the role of the Evangelist, referring to the Cross and the curtain in the temple that tore apart, and closes by referring to the resurrection of the faithful as a result of Jesus's resurrection. Next is a duet for alto and bass, in which they urge Jesus to remove the stone of the tomb from their spirit. It is followed by a chorale, the fourth stanza of Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist; the text differs from tradition, and may have been adapted by the author of the libretto. This is followed by a chorus and an accompanied recitative and arioso for soprano with chorus, which refer to "eternal victory". The soprano then sings an operatic aria, in which the word "Pracht" (splendour) is singled out through coloratura. The oratorio ends with a chorale, the tenth stanza of Wach auf, mein Herz, die Nacht ist hin (Lorenz Lorenzen, c1700), on the melody of Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut.

The disc opens with a much shorter piece by Agricola, Der Gottmensch jauchzt, a cantata for four voices and an orchestra of two oboes, two horns, three trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The soprano has a recitative and an aria; the other three voices are only involved in a short quartet. The music is not original, but rather an adaptation of the four first sections of a setting of Psalm 21. As one may expect, the full orchestra is involved in the opening chorus: "The divine human exults, the grave is enraptured; in your power, Lord, you stand up". In the ensuing recitative the soprano reminds the audience of Jesus's suffering at the Cross; his resurrection awakens the faithful. The quartet sings about Jesus's protection from his throne. The soprano then comes with a song of praise about Jesus's glory. The cantata closes with the 7th stanza of a chorale with the title Kommt, laßt uns den Höchsten preisen.

Gottfried August Homilius was generally considered the main composer of sacred music in Protestant Germany of the generation of Bach's sons. His extant oeuvre is quite large and found a wide dissemination across Germany and even beyond. The oratorio Frohlocket und preiset den göttlichen Held dates from 1767 and was probably performed that same year in the Dresden Frauenkirche. Like Agricola's two works, it is scored for an orchestra of wind and strings: two flutes, two oboes, three trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The tutti are in four parts, but there are five solo parts, including two sopranos. The work opens with a splendid chorus in ABA form, which is almost entirely homophonic, as was common at the time. One won't find much counterpoint in the music on this disc. The ensuing recitative is for three voices, which represent three women at Jesus's grave: Mary Magdalene (soprano), Mary Jacobi (soprano) and Salome (alto). They talk about how they could remove the stone from the tomb in order to take care of Jesus's body. In a trio they reflect on the cause of the situation, the "sorrowful fall". In the next recitative, the three women find the tomb empty. An angel (bass) then urges them in an aria to "not be appalled (...) but joyfully banish fear and pain", because "the prince of life has risen". The word "freudig" (joyfully) is illustrated by coloratura. Next the angel urges the women to proclaim Jesus's resurrection. His recitative is followed by a chorale, the third stanza of Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag. In a trio, the three women sing largely the same text, but open with different words, which are musically illustrated: "All at once, astonishment/fright/fear and joy takes hold of heart and mind". In a recitative, the tenor expresses his faith in Jesus's resurrection, and he is supported by soprano and bass. At the end of the oratorio, the A section of the opening chorus is repeated.

It has taken a while until the vocal music of the generation of German composers after Bach has been taken seriously and started to be appreciated. Too long, Bach was the standard, and as the idiom of his sons and their contemporaries is in many ways so different, many found it hard to get used to it. The fact that in the last ten to twenty years quite a number of discs with this kind of repertoire have been released, indicates that something has changed. The present disc is further proof of that. This can only be welcomed. These three pieces are quite interesting and musically compelling. The influence of opera in the arias cannot be overlooked, but these works were clearly intended for liturgical use, and that shows, for instance by the inclusion of chorales. The writing for the voices is excellent, both in Agricola and in Homilius. It has to be regretted that so much of Agricola's oeuvre seems to have been lost, but let's hope the archive of the Singakademie has some further surprises in store.

These pieces is done ample justice by Willens, his singers and his orchestra. Hannah Morrison is particularly impressive in her large arias, and so is Georg Poplutz. I can't remember having heard André Morsch in this kind of repertoire before, but he does well in the part of the Angel in Homilius, even though he uses a bit too much vibrato. The same goes for Bethany Seymour in her small role. Rahel Maas is a nice surprise, and someone I would like to hear in a larger part. Elisabeth Popien has become best-known as a long-time member of Cantus Cölln. Here her voice seems a bit too soft; in the trios she is a little overshadowed by the two sopranos.

All in all, this disc is a very important addition to the (small) discography of 18th-century music for Easter.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

André Morsch
Georg Poplutz
Bethany Seymour
Kölner Akademie

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