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Gottfried August Homilius: "Christmas in the Dresden Frauenkirche - Cantatas II"

Katja Fischer, sopranoa; Alexander Schneider, altob; Martin Petzold, tenorc; Jochen Kupfer, bassd
Körnerscher Sing-Verein; Dresdner Instrumental-Concert
Dir: Peter Kopp
rec: Jan 27 - 29, 2005, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.170 (73'23")

Auf, auf, ihr Herzen, seid bereit, cantata for the 4th Sunday of Adventa,c,d; Ein hoher Tag kömmt, cantata for the 1st Christmas Daya,b,c,d; Ergreifet die Psalter, ihr christlichen Chöre, cantata for the 1st Sunday of Adventa,c; Wünschet Jerusalem Glück, cantata for New Year's Daya,b,c,d

Gottfried August Homilius was one of the main composers of sacred music in the northern part of Germany in the second half of the 18th century. No less than 200 cantatas flowed out of his pen, which were performed in Dresden, where from 1755 until his death he was Kantor of the Kreuzschule, which was associated to the Kreuzkirche. The title of this disc may therefore surprise. But it reflects the historical circumstances in which Homilius was working in Dresden. At the end of 1756 the Prussian army had invaded Saxonia, which was the beginning of the Seven Years' War. In July 1760 they destroyed the Kreuzkirche, and as a result all musical activities in that church were moved towards the Frauenkirche. The Kreuzkirche could only be reconsecrated in 1792. So Homilius had to work the largest part of his time as Kreuzkantor in the Frauenkirche, where he had been organist from 1741 to 1755.

This disc brings cantatas for the season of Advent, Christmas and New Year. It opens with Ergreifet die Psalter, ihr christlichen Chöre, a cantata for the first Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally concentrating on the coming of Jesus as King of the world. This is reflected by the scoring, which contains trumpets and timpani, so often used in compositions for kings and queens. The scoring for two choirs allows Homilius to create a dialogue on a text which refers to Psalm 24: "There he comes, humbly - Who is coming? - The king of glory - Who is this king of glory?" Jesus is characterised as 'Saviour of the world', 'king of glory', 'father of mankind', 'ruler of unnumbered hosts' and, in the next recitative, 'prince'. There is also a reference to the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem, which is celebrated on Palm Sunday: "He is coming, bestrew his way with fresh palms". The following aria for soprano encourages the audience to receive the King and serve him gladly.

The parts of the gospel which report about the announcement of Jesus's coming by John the Baptist were read during the Advent period. The cantata Auf, auf, ihr Herzen, seid bereit, written for the 4th Sunday of Advent, ties in with this. It starts with a chorus which calls on the audience to be ready to receive the Saviour of the world: "Lift up your hearts, be ready to receive with awe the Duke of your salvation." In the next recitative the work of John is directly referred to: "The herald's call rouses the world (...) The herald calls, he shows the light, which breaks through all darkness, now the way has to be prepared". This is a reference to Isaiah 40, just as at the beginning of Handel's Messiah. The next aria links up with this: "The towering heights descend, the fearful valleys rise again", which is illustrated by descending and rising scales in the music. In the next recitative and the closing chorale Jesus is asked to move into our hearts.

Trumpets and timpani appear again in the opening chorus of the cantata for the first day of Christmas, Ein hoher Tag kömmt: "A great day is dawning, rejoice in its honour". The next recitative reminds the audience of the joy the news of the birth of a prince brings to a country. "But here is more than a king's son, to us no prince, but a God is given". Next follows a terzetto which consists of four sections: the A section is sung by three voices, the next three by the two sopranos (the second is an alto here) and the tenor respectively. After every solo section the A section is repeated. The text explains the meaning of Jesus's coming in the flesh: "to dwell as mediator". As a result "we inherit the Father's realm". After a recitative the soprano sings a aria full of joy: "I sing of his name, his praise shall always be in my mouth". This aria hasn't a da capo structure: the B section ends with the choir singing "Amen, Amen". The cantata closes with a chorale on the melody of 'Vom Himmel hoch'.

The last cantata, Wünschet Jerusalem Glück, is for New Year's Day, which was sometimes also celebrating the circumcision of Jesus. In this cantata Homilius concentrates on thanksgiving for the blessings of the past year and prayers for God's blessing in the coming year. In the booklet Gerhard Poppe suggests a political meaning as well. The cantata was written in 1756, when Dresden suffered the consequences of the Prussian invasion in Saxonia. This could explain why Homilius used the chorale 'Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich' (Mercifully grant us peace, Lord God, in our time) as cantus firmus in the opening chorus which says: "Wish Jerusalem joy! It must be well for those who love thee! There must be peace within thy walls, and good fortune in thy palaces!" The soprano aria refers to Psalm 23, and this is followed by an accompanied recitative in five sections: the first four are successively sung by the soloists, in the fifth they sing together: "We all, Lord, who praise thee, let us never be in need. Regard all of the fatherland with mercy, and let no disaster come near our dwellings". After an aria for bass, which calls on to praise God, the cantata ends with a chorale which - as so often in music for New Year's Day - expresses the longing for the second coming of Christ.

The four cantatas on this disc have all been recorded for the first time. Considering their quality it is rather surprising that is has taken so long before they were performed and recorded. I was particularly struck by the way Homilius expresses the content of the arias in the music, for example by the instrumental scoring. The recitatives are also very eloquent and rhetorical, and the soloists underline that character in their interpretations. The main parts in these cantatas are for the soprano and the bass, and they both are excellent. I knew about the qualities of Jochen Kupfer, but Katja Fischer was a new name to me. She has a pure and clear voice, which is a great delight to listen to. Both singers excell in the way they shape the phrases, and they communicate the text very well by means of clear diction and articulation. The alto and tenor have relatively small parts to sing, and they do that well. The choir and orchestra leave nothing to be desired.

Considering the quality of these cantatas and the interpretations on this disc I strongly recommend not only to look for this particular recording but also to explore the music of Homilius, which has been very much underrated so far. The Carus Verlag is going to publish the scores of these cantatas, and we should be very grateful for that.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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