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Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714-1785): Der Messias (HoWV I.6)

Meike Leluschko, Friederike Beykirch, soprano; Annekathrin Laabs, contalto; Patrick Grahl, tenor; Tobias Berndt, Sebastian Wartig, bass
Sächsisches Vocalensemble; Batzdorfer Hofkapelle
Dir: Matthias Jung

rec: June 5, 2014 (live), Dresden, Annenkirche
CPO - 777 947-2 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.39'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Stephanie Drechsler, Patricia Hoffmann, Isabel Ihde, Cornelia Jung, Katharina Scheliga, Josefine Thomser, soprano; Katharina Pfeiffer, Katharina Rosenkranz, Nora Rutte, Dörte Tannenberg, contralto; Martin Schreyer, alto; Max Hebeis, Gregor Hirschmann, Markus Klose, Paul Kmetsch, Michael Schwämmlein, Christian Volkmann, tenor; Gustav Augart, Johannes Bachmann, Falk Hochmuth, Konrad Krause, Georg Liskowsky, Jens Martin Scheidig, bass
Johanna Baumgärtel, Anne-Kathrin Ludwig, transverse flute; Inge Marg, Marie-Therese Reith, oboe; Eva-Maria Horn, Krystof Lada, bassoon; Stephan Katte, Sebastian Fischer, horn Daniel Deuter, Beate Voigt, Anne Kaun, Esther Neumann, Fiona Stevens, Martina Rentzsch, Almut Schlicker, Franziska Graefe, violin; Caroline Kersten, Ildiko Ludwig, Maria Jadziewicz, viola; Sascha Werchau, Christian Bergert, cello; Tilman Schmidt, double bass; Alina Rotaru, harpsichord, organ; Leonhard Arntzen, timpani

It is remarkable that a composer who was hardly appreciated in the 19th and 20th centuries experiences a triumphant comeback since the start of this century. I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to review most of the recordings devoted to compositions by Gottfried August Homilius, and time and again I came to the conclusion that they are very good. Having heard a number of cantatas and oratorios, and not to forget a whole bunch of his motets, I fully understand that he was held in high regard in his time and even considered "the greatest church composer" in Germany in the second half of the 18th century. Many of his works have been found in archives across the German speaking part of Europe and as far away as the Moravian communities in the New World.

Der Messias is not - as the title may suggest - comparable with Handel's Messiah but a Passion oratorio, a genre which became increasingly popular in the course of the 18th century and gradually overshadowed the traditional oratorio Passion. There are several differences between these two genres. Oratorio Passions were based on the Biblical account of the suffering and death of Jesus, often with additional free texts (arias and chorales). In particular the Gospels according to Matthew and John were used. The Passion oratorio was mostly a combination of a paraphrase of and contemplation on the story of the Passion. Passion oratorios were usually performed outside the church, in the form of a concert, but in the second half of the 18th century they became part of religious services as well.

Homilius has contributed to both genres. Four oratorio Passions, based on the four gospels, and five Passion oratorios from Homilius' pen are extant. In most cases we don't know when they were written, but is seems likely that the oratorio Passions are older than the Passion oratorios, probably with one exception. In the case of Der Messias - which Homilius called a Singspiel - we know from a Dresden newspaper report that the first performance took place in the Frauenkirche on Good Friday 1776. However, the work seems to have been composed - and maybe even commissioned - for a performance at Duke Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin's Ludwigslust Castle Church in 1780. A score autograph with a dedication by the composer to Duke has been preserved. The State Library in Schwerin also owns manuscript scores and performance material. The Duke was called 'the Pious' because of his Pietistic leanings. He had a not very large, but well-trained vocal and instrumental ensemble at his disposal. They were responsible for the concerts spirituels, which took place here twice a week and could be attended by "every properly-dressed man or woman irrespective of their social standing". During these concerts chorales, Psalms and cantatas were performed, not only written by members of the ensemble but also by composers from elsewhere.

The author of the libretto is not known. It is divided into two parts, probably inspired by the common practice in churches at the time that between the two parts the sermon was held. The oratorio opens with a chorale, Herr, stärke mich, dein Leiden zu bedenken whose text was written by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-1769), on a melody of Johann Crüger (1640) which was first used for the text Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen. It is followed by a chorus which sums up the meaning of Jesus' Passion: "Now he makes all things new! The hero from Canaan (...) dies, Death, to save a world of sinners from you". Then follows an accompagnato whose first part is in fact a secco recitative; the tenor acts here as the Evangelist, although he doesn't quote any biblical passage; it is rather a subjective description of and reflection on the first episode of the Passion story. A feature of many Passion oratorios is that the arias are allocated to a specific character in the story. Der Messias doesn't include any names, but it is clear from the text that the bass personifies Jesus. In the aria 'Euch, treue Gefährten' he addresses his disciples: "Joys, dear companions, await you there. I shall give you the kingdom of heaven". He then continues in the next accompagnato: "O Father, with the power you have given the son, I gave light and life to those who are yours".

Next is a short aria for bass who represents here the vox Dei: "You are my beloved Son, honoured by the Father; with my bright light I have glorified you". He is introduced by the orchestra that includes timpani opening the proceedings. As this is God the Father who is speaking this part is given to the second bass. The first bass then opens the ensuing accompagnato with the words of Jesus: "Now children, you will see me only a short time more". The tenor continues and it is notable that his part includes some quotations of Jesus. As this accompagnato is about Jesus' stay in Gethsemane it is highly emotional. Jesus' trembling is depicted by a tremolo in the strings. It is followed by a duet of alto and bass which expresses sorrow over Jesus' grief: "God, what consequences of my sins!". The two singers have different texts: the bass has a dictum, a literal quotation from the Bible, here Isaiah 43, 24-25 (Yes, you have brought me labour with your sins). In the accompaniment there are obbligato parts for transverse flute and bassoon. After an aria for tenor and bass the soprano sings a chorale - which I could not identify - to an accompaniment of strings playing pizzicato. Next comes a recitative of the Evangelist which is shared by tenor and soprano. One could consider this a relic of the 17th century (Carissimi, Schütz). The soprano then has a dacapo aria of operatic proportions and character: it takes almost eight minutes and includes cadenzas in both sections. The ensuing accompagnato ends with the crowds urging Jesus to be crucified: "His blood on us and on our children!" This is followed by a very dramatic chorus which is dominated by dotted rhythms and tremoli in the orchestra: "What will happen to you, impudent people, when his wrath is kindled?" The soprano then sings an accompagnato which quotes Jesus saying: "Daughters of Salem, do not weep for me, (...) weep for yourselves, weep for your children". The first part ends with three stanzas of the hymn Höchster König, Jesu Christ (Johann Heermann, 1674).

The second part opens with a chorale, Ein Opfer nach dem ewgen Rath, again from the pen of Gellert. The ensuing chorus is another dictum, Isaiah 53,5 (He was wounded for our wrongdoing). Tenor and soprano share the next accompagnato which ends with the death of Jesus. It is followed by a brilliant duet of two sopranos, 'Es ist vollbracht' (It is accomplished). The next accompagnato for soprano and alto is another highly dramatic episode which describes the reaction of nature: "[Nature] is horrified, the mountains fearfully do quake, (...) the kingdom of hell trembles". The alto then sings an aria which addresses the soul: "Do but attempt, soul, to grasp what moves your God's heart to redeem you". After another recitative the choir sings a stanza from Gellert's chorale which opens the oratorio. After a short recitative for the soprano the oratorio ends with a chorus. The episodes for the tutti alternate with a solo for soprano which is literally repeated: "May I never fail to keep in mind how much it cost God to have me redeemed".

Der Messias is another very fine piece from the pen of Homilius. It is a highly important and worthwhile addition to the Passion repertoire. It is probably a good thing that his oeuvre was discovered at the time that historical performance practice had firmly established itself. Because of that our impression of Homilius has not been spoiled by inappropriate interpretations. The recordings I have heard so far are mostly good and several are even outstanding. The latter also goes for this particular performance. Soloists, choir and orchestra are fully up to the job and do this splendid work full justice. The arias receive excellent interpretations; the duet of the two sopranos is one of the highlights, also thanks to the perfect blending of the two singers whose voices are just different enough to tell them apart. Patrick Grahl deserves praise for his very fine account of the part of the Evangelist. Only now and then he could have emphasized some words more clearly. Tobias Berndt has exactly the right amount of authority to interpret the words of Jesus convincingly.

The choruses and chorales are nicely sung, with much attention to the text. Whether a choir of 23 singers is the most appropriate for a work like this is hard to say. I wonder whether a chorus of the soloists plus ripienists would have been more in line with the practice of Homilius' time. In that case the choruses would have been more transparent. The dramatic aspects come off to full effect, both in the choral and in the orchestral parts.

There are a couple of issues, though, which could be due to the fact that this is a live recording. There are some differences between the printed libretto and what is actually sung. In the accompagnato 'O Vater, mit der Macht' (Part 1) the bass sings "ich kam die Freuden zu lehren" (I came to teach the joys) which seems a little nonsense to me; the booklet has "Irrenden" (I came to teach those who err) which makes much more sense, considering the next line: "to convert the unrepentant". In the accompagnato 'Laut ward sein Geist' (Part 2) the soprano sings "Juden" instead of "Jüden". And in the recitative 'Wenn dein geliebter Sohn' (Part 2) the tenor sings "unschuldig unter Schmach und Qualen sinkt" (innocently falls in dishonour and torment). The booklet has here "stirbt" (dies) which is more in line with the timeline: this is sung when Jesus hangs at the cross. Are these all slips of the tongue?

The production is, as I have come to expect from CPO, not impeccable. Apart from some printing errors in the booklet the text of track 6 (CD 1) is a bit of a mess. The bass aria (vox Dei) precedes the accompagnato but is printed at the end.

But these are all peanuts considering the quality of the music and the performance. This oratorio deserves to be part of the repertoire for Passiontide. Hopefully it will find its way to church and concert hall.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Patrick Grahl
Annekathrin Laabs
Meike Leluschko
Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle

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