musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714 - 1785): "Musik an der Dresdner Frauenkirche - Cantatas I"

Vasiljka Jezovšek, sopranoa; Anne Buter, contraltob; Hubert Nettinger, tenorc; Christian Hilz, bassd
Dresdner Kreuzchor; Dresdner Barockorchester
Dir: Roderich Kreile
rec: May 4 - 8, 2004, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.183 (© 2006) (73'23")

Der Herr ist Gott, der uns erleuchtet, cantata for Whitsundaya,b,c; Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen, cantata for Ascension Daya,b,d; Heilig ist unser Gott, der Herr Gott Zebaoth, cantata for Trinitya,b,c; Selig seid ihr, wenn ihr geschmähet werdet, cantata for Sunday Exaudia,b,c,d

Gottfried August Homilius was born in Rosenthal in Saxony, and studied law at Leipzig University. There he became a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach and also of Johann Schneider, organist at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. In 1742 he was appointed organist at the Frauenkirche in Dresden, and in 1755 he succeeded Theodor Christlieb Reinhold as Kantor of the Kreuzschule, connected to the Kreuzkirche. After this church was destroyed by Prussian troops during the siege of Dresden in 1760, the services were mainly held in the Frauenkirche. There most of Homilius's liturgical music was performed, which explains the title of this disc. As a composer of church music - which includes about 200 cantatas for all feast days - he was famous all over Germany, as his compositions have been found in many places.

The function of cantatas in the liturgy in Dresden wasn't any different from that of Bach's cantatas in Leipzig in that they were a kind of musical sermon. The form of Homilius's cantatas is therefore the same: they open with a chorus, mostly based on a text from the Bible, and close with a stanza from a chorale. In between there are a number of recitatives and arias. The arias are generally considerably longer than in most of Bach's cantatas, reflecting the stylistic change in those days.
The disc brings four cantatas for the period around Whitsuntide. Unfortunately the order on the disc is not in accordance with the order of the church year.

The disc opens with a cantata for Whitsunday, Der Herr ist Gott, der uns erleuchtet. In the opening chorus and a second chorus in the centre it quotes Psalm 118, praising God for his goodness. The first recitative refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus and his announcement of the coming of the Holy Ghost, through which his followers are living. They are urged to "bring offerings in countless numbers", and the Holy Ghost is asked to not only accompany the faithful during their life but also to help them "to die serenely" and let them inherit eternal life.

The second cantata, Selig seid ihr, wenn ihr geschmähet werdet, is written for Sunday Exaudi, which is the Sunday between Ascension Day and Whitsunday, and which traditionally concentrated on the persecution as the effect of following Jesus. We find this theme also in Bach's cantatas for this Sunday, Sie werden euch in den Bann tun (BWV 44, 183). The text of the opening chorus is from I Peter 4 vs 14: "Blessed are ye if ye are reviled over the name of Christ". The followers of Jesus have to accept the consequences, as the tenor aria says: "Patiently bend thy back under the burden of the cross if thou will bear witness to Jesus". In the next recitative they are told that Jesus will give them strength, which is also the theme of the closing chorale.

This cantata is followed by Heilig ist unser Gott, written for Trinity, the Sunday following Whitsunday. As the name of this feast suggests, it concentrates on the Trinity, but it ignores the liturgical readings for this Sunday. Father, Son, Holy Ghost and the Trinity are praised in four choral sections, divided by three arias. In all four choruses the same music is used, emphasizing the unity of the three Persons of the Trinity.

The disc closes with a cantata for Ascension Day, Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen. The opening chorus quotes Psalm 47, which is traditionally considered as referring to Jesus's accession to the throne. The first recitative describes the meaning of Ascension Day, and the first aria is about the jubilation in heaven by the angels. In the next recitative the congregation is addressed: "The Saviour goes before to prepare our place". In the closing chorale they are urged to "devote the heart to that place where ye long to be forever".

These cantatas are performed by a larger ensemble than Homilius had at his disposal, as Gerhard Poppe in the programme notes acknowledges. I don't know if there are any specific data about the number of singers and instrumentalists with which these cantatas were performed in the composer's time. One may assume that the vocal forces were all male, and in this respect the present recording is in line with the historical circumstances as far as the performance of the choruses and chorales is concerned, unlike the soprano and alto arias which are sung by adult singers. This also causes practical problems in the opening chorus of Selig seid ihr, wenn ihr geschmähet werdet, in which the tutti are interspersed by passages for two voices, either soprano/alto or tenor/bass. The difference in the style of singing between the adult soloists - in particular the women - and the chorus, especially in regard to the use of vibrato, is unsatisfying. That is also the case in the chorus 'Danket dem Herrn' from the cantata Der Herr ist Gott.

It is not only the use of vibrato by the soloists and the difference between soli and tutti which is problematic. The performance of the recitatives is disappointing, as these are far too slow and lack the rhythmic freedom which composers expected from the singers. The choir gives good performances, although the upper voices tend to dominate too much. The orchestra also makes a good impression here.

On the whole, though, this is a less than ideal recording of these sacred cantatas by Homilius. All the same I would like to recommend this disc because of the quality of the music and the fact that these pieces have been recorded here for the first time.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

CD Reviews