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Johann David HEINICHEN (1683 - 1729): "Two Passion Oratorios"

Elena Harsányi, soprano; Elvira Bill, contralto; Mirko Ludwig, tenor; Andreas Wolf, baritone
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: July 25 - 28, 2021, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
CPO - 555 507-2 (© 2022) (75'06")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Come? S'imbruna il ciel! Occhi piangete! (S 29); L’aride tempie ignude (S 30)

Thomas Wormitt, Dmitri Mankeev, transverse flute; Susanne Regel, Mario Topper, Hanna Lindeijer, oboe; Antonio de Sarlo, Ye-Young Hwang, Berit Brüntjen, Bruno van Esseveld, Daniel Frankenberg, Katarina Todorovic, violin; Rafael Roth, viola; Albert Brüggen, cello; Thomas Falke, double bass; Willi Kronenberg, harpsichord

Johann David Heinichen is one of those composers who appeared on disc and concert programmes long after the beginning of the 'early music movement'. If I am not mistaken it was the set of concertos which were recorded by Reinhard Goebel with his ensemble Musica antiqua Köln which revealed the qualities of Heinichen as a composer of instrumental music. That recording was followed by others and these largely confined themselves to that part of his oeuvre. It was again Goebel who then turned the attention to Heinichen's vocal music, with recordings of his Lamentations of Jeremiah and a Passion oratorio. Since then some other vocal music has been recorded, and most of that concerns music for the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, which may surprise, given that Heinichen was a Lutheran composer, who early in his career wrote cantatas for Lutheran services.

Heinichen was born in Krössuln near Weissenfels. Like his father he entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he received lessons at the keyboard from the then Thomaskantor, Johann Kuhnau. He was so impressed by the qualities of his pupil that he asked Heinichen to act as his assistant. Heinichen didn't plan a musical career, though: he studied law at Leipzig University and moved to Weissenfels to start a practice as a lawyer. But Johann Philipp Krieger, then Kapellmeister at the court of Duke Johann Georg, encouraged him to compose music for festive occasions at the court. It was the beginning of a career in music: in 1709 he returned to Leipzig, composed several operas and played in the Collegium Musicum which was directed by Telemann. In 1710 Heinichen travelled to Venice, where he came into contact with several famous masters, such as Gasparini, Lotti and Vivaldi. In 1712 he paid a visit to Rome, and then returned to Venice.

The religious situation in Dresden was a bit complicated. Frederic August's father (known as Frederick August I) converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to be elected King of Poland. That had no consequences for the Electorate Saxony, which remained firmly Lutheran, and where Catholics were a small minority. However, it did have consequences for religious practices at the court. The opera house at the Taschenberg was converted into the first Catholic court church after the Reformation. Frederick August (II) converted to Catholicism himself in 1712, which became only known five years later. In 1719 he married Archduchess Maria Josepha, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, and this only enhanced the Catholic influence in Dresden. The Electoral Princess took the role of patroness of the Catholic community. This included the promotion of Catholic sacred music.

The composition of music for the Protestant court chapel was the responsibility of Johann Christoph Schmidt, who is hardly known today. At first he was also responsible for the Catholic church music, but in 1717 he handed over that task to Heinichen. The latter was appointed Kapellmeister with the main task of composing operas, but he had to share that responsibility with Antonio Lotti, who composed the operas for Frederick August's wedding in 1719, whereas Heinichen wrote three serenatas. He was to compose an opera for carnival 1720, but a conflict between the two main protagonists, the castratos Senesino and Matteo Berselli, resulted in their dismission, and this resulted in the end of Italian opera in Dresden for some time. It was the appointment of Johann Adolf Hasse in 1730 which marked the return of opera.

Recently a recording of music for the Catholic liturgy by Heinichen was released, performed by the Ensemble Polyharmonique and the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Jaroslaw Thiel (Accent, 2022). The disc under review here includes music that was not intended for a liturgical performance, as the missa sicca of Good Friday did not allow the participation of instruments. Like the imperial court in Vienna, the Dresden court had a tradition of performing sepulcri, dramatic pieces of passion music, which were performed on Good Friday or - as may have been the case here, according to Michael Heinemann in his liner-notes - on Holy Saturday.

The two Passion oratorios - which Heinichen himself called cantatas - complete the picture of what Heinichen has written for Passiontide. The German oratorio mentioned in the first paragraph (Nicht das Band, das dich bestricket), is called Oratorio tedesco al sepolcro santo, and is comparable in nature with the two pieces in Italian. The main difference is, apart from the use of the vernacular, that it focuses on the events of the Passion itself. However, the text of the Gospels is ignored, like in the two Italian sepulcri, and that puts these pieces in the tradition of the passion oratorio. The first specimen of such oratorios was what is known as the Brockes-Passion.

Whereas the Brockes-Passion is a kind of paraphrase of the Passion story as told in the Gospels, many later passion oratorios are rather meditations on the events and their effect, often by characters from the Gospels, such as Mary, Peter and John. That is also the case with Come? S'imbruna il ciel! Occhi piangete. The title indicates that its starting point is the earthquake which took place after Jesus's death: "What? The sky darkens! Eyes, weep!". This is the first line of the opening chorus. The instrumental introduction is dominated by descending figures. Three of the soloists (SAT) then sing the text of the chorus, in the next section they are joined by the bass. The four characters are Mary Magdalene (soprano), Mary the mother of Jesus (alto), John (tenor) and the centurion (bass). Mary Magdalene opens the proceedings, expressing her love for Jesus, "probably rather a concession to opera and music theatre with their more pronounced expression of affects than a theologically tenuous position", Michael Heinemann states. He is right in connecting this work to opera, as stylistically the similarity is striking, but this may also be explained from the tradition of bridal mysticism, which has been part of Christian thinking since early in history. She and John then observe the effects Jesus's mother Mary, who has an accompanied recitative and an aria, in which she laments about her fate: "Consider if there is a pain that is equal to my pain". This is a clear reference to O vos omnes, one of the Tenebrae Responsoria: "Attend and see if there is any sorrow like to my sorrow". The character of the aria and the scoring for alto lends this role a strong amount of restraint, which seems to reflect the way Mary is portrayed in the Gospels.

John then expresses his compassion with Mary and tells that he is wounded too. He calls her his mother, referring to Christ's ordering him to take care of her: "You can receive John in place of your Jesus". Mary accepts him as her son, and then mourns again about the torment her son has suffered. This is a particularly moving aria, notable also for the important role of the woodwinds in the A part, where the basso continuo is omitted. Mary Magdalene and John sing a duet, which show two different ways of looking at the cross: "Ill-born cross, pitiless cross" (Mary Magdalene) vs "victorious cross, happy cross" (John). The next recitative sums up the different perspectives: "What paternal rigour" (Mary Magdalene), "What fraternal love" (John), "What maternal sorrow" (Mary). The centurion then expresses his astonishment about what he has been witnessing: "Poor wretches, what have we done?" The oratorio ends with an appeal to the audience: "Come to the cross, redeemed souls; the Redeemer invites you with open arms".

The second work has a different subject matter. The four characters in L'aride tempie ignude are Death (Morte; bass), Divine Love (Amor divino; alto), Penitence (Poenitenza; tenor) and Hope (Speranza; soprano). The oratorio opens with a sinfonia, and then Death proclaims its victory, as "the Almighty [has been] cut down by a blow from my sickle". "I shall inscribe the awe­inspiring history of my victory on this tomb (...)". Divine Love proclaims to have been the one who vanquished Jesus. "Love, to remove the fail­ings of humankind, brought him down from the highest throne (...)". Penitence then urges the "pitiless heart" to express even more remorse and shed tears of love. In its aria, Hope says that, just like "moisture from the sky revives a plant", a lost soul will revive through the breeze of life which is Jesus's death. A chorus ends the oratorio: "The sincere heart that truly feels both pain and love alone is able to hope."

It has already been noted that these oratorios have much in common with the opera of the time. The arias would not be misplaced in an opera. They are treated as such here but not in an exaggerated manner. Heinichen's scoring is spot-on, as I mentioned in the case of Mary in the first oratorio, and I also could mention the roles that the bass is playing (centurion and Death, respectively), and in the second oratorio the soprano has the bright sound the role of Hope asks for. The choice of singers for this recording fits Heinichen's scoring perfectly. Andreas Wolf is not my favourite bass, and he uses a little too much vibrato here and there, but his account of his respective roles is exactly right. Elvira Bill has a sweet voice, which is perfectly suited to the roles she has to sing. The same goes for Elena Harsányi's bright voice, ideally cast for Hope and for Mary Magdalene, expressing the latter's strong feelings convincingly. Mirko Ludwig has two roles to sing which have an appealing character, and that comes off effectively thanks to his excellent articulation and diction and his treatment of dynamics. The choruses are rightly performed with one voice per part. The orchestra leaves nothing to be desired.

These two oratorios confirm the impression of previous recordings, that Heinichen was an outstanding composer. One can only be happy that parts of his oeuvre are available on disc. Let's hope that there is more to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Elvira Bill
Elena Harsányi
Mirko Ludwig
Andreas Wolf
Kölner Akademie

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