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Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714 - 1785): "Weihnachtsoratorium" (Christmas Oratorio)

Christiane Kohl, sopranoa; Annette Markert, contraltob; Marcus Ullmann, tenorc; Tobias Berndt, bassd
Sächsisches Vocalensemblee; Virtuosi Saxoniae
Dir.: Ludwig Güttler
rec: Dec 15, 2007 (live), Dresden, Frauenkirche
Carus - 83.235 (© 2008) (58'22")

Gottfried August HOMILIUS: Die Freude der Hirten über die Geburth Jesu (HoWV 1,1)abcde; Christian August JACOBI (1688-after 1725): Der Himmel steht uns wieder offenc

The German label Carus pays special attention to the oeuvre of Gottfried August Homilius. So far one disc with motets, recordings of two passion oratorios and two discs with sacred cantatas have been released. This disc is the second with music for Christmas. Previously Peter Kopp directed the Körnerscher Sing-Verein Dresden and the Dresdner Instrumental-Concert in church cantatas for Advent and New Year (*). This time it is an oratorio for Christmas, called here 'Weihnachtsoratorium' (Christmas Oratorio), but that is not the title Homilius has given this work. It was called Die Freude der Hirten über die Geburth Jesu (The joy of the shepherds about the birth of Jesus). This already indicates what this oratorio is about and what its character is.

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. 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.

At the same Frauenkirche the 'Christmas Oratorio' was performed and recorded in December 2007. It is the second work - after the Passion Oratorio Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld - which was published during Homilius' lifetime. Like the Passion oratorio the text was written by Ernst August Buschmann (1715 - 1775) whose last position was that of pastor in Delitzsch, near Leipzig.

The subject of the shepherds who are told that Jesus has been born and who go to adore him is one of the most popular in music history. But in Buschmann's text there is more depth than usual. In the opening chorus we meet the shepherds who sing to God: "God, our songs praise you in the nighttime, joyfully we thank you again when day breaks". They also pray for protection during the night. Then follows a recitative of soprano, alto and tenor who prepare the shepherds for the arrival of the angel: "Behold, how the heavens are aflame, how fearful, the Lord appears, surely he will not wish to slay us?"

Then the angel says: "Fear not, behold, I make known to you great joy to all peoples". Interestingly the announcement of the angel - the only quotation from the Bible in this oratorio - is not set in the form of a recitative, but as an aria. And the angel is not a soprano, as so often in music about this episode in the Christmas story, but a bass, reflecting the majesty of God and the strength of the heavenly armies. This could be a reflection of the ideal of 'naturalness' which was a feature of this era in music history. There is no chorus of angels to be heard here; their singing is just reported by the tenor in his aria: 'The angels rejoice, immortal songs they sing from heaven down to earth". He then acts as one of the shepherds encouraging his colleagues to "approach the crib" to "play a tune on our flutes". Then follows a lullaby - set, as so often in pastoral music, in 12/8 time -, which is sung by the choir. In the next recitative the soprano casts a shadow over the happiness around the crib: "You no longer smile! (...) Are you weeping over me?" In the following aria the soprano asks for forgiveness: "give me your grace". In the next recitative the tenor states Jesus' grace: "the child forgives, with love". The oratorio ends with a chorus singing the praise of the Messiah and asking the angelic choirs "how to honour our deliverer".

The 12/8 time of the lullaby isn't the only typical pastoral element. The opening chorus, for instance, links up with the popular pastoral music of the time, with the woodwind imitating the instruments usually associated with shepherds (shawms and bagpipes) and with simple harmony. There is a general lightness of tone, which makes it a typical product of its time, and very different from music in the time of Homilius' teacher Bach. The scoring is for four voices - soli and tutti - and a rather large orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, three corni da caccia, three trumpets, timpani, strings and bc. This is effectively used, for instance in the aria of the angel, where the trumpets underline the power of Gods angelic armies.

The Virtuosi Saxoniae play on modern instruments, but in their many recordings have shown to be willing to incorporate as many aspects of the historical performance practice as possible. In the light of this I am rather disappointed about the performance of this 'Christmas Oratorio'. I have sincere doubts about the size of the performing apparatus. I am not sure how many singers and players Homilius had at his disposal, but I very much doubt whether he had a choir of 25 singers (7/6/6/6) and an orchestra with 16 strings. The number of strings seems to me too large, having a negative impact on the balance with the woodwind instruments. The latter play a prominent role in the opening chorus, but that is not brought out very well. This is one of the consequences of using modern instruments: the strings are louder and the woodwind less penetrating. In addition the strings use a bit more vibrato than they should, and the articulation is often unsatisfying: either too much legato or, just the opposite, too much staccato. Another result of the use of modern instruments is the standard pitch - and sometimes the soloists have problems with that on their top notes.

I am not really impressed by the soloists anyway. They use too much vibrato, and in the recitatives there is not enough rhythmic freedom. Also the diction now and then leaves something to be desired. Some of these problems, of course, could have been corrected in a studio recording.

In addition to the oratorio by Homilius a solo cantata is performed. Christian August Jacobi had studied philosophy and theology at the University of Leipzig, and acted as organist in Wittenberg. In between he was director of the chapel of Forst in Lower Lusatia, where apparently this cantata has been written. It is scored for tenor with orchestra and consists of a sequence of arias and recitatives. The third section uses the melody of the popular Christmas hymn 'Vom Himmel hoch'. It is a nice work which is performed reasonably well by Marcus Ullmann, but, again, it could have been better if this had been a studio recording. I have to say, though, that - as on other occasions - I am not very enthusiastic about the tenor's voice and way of singing.

For all those who have a special interest in German sacred music of the 18th century this disc is something to look out for, in particular as I don't expect these two works to be recorded again - and better - in the near future. It also adds to the repertoire for Christmas, and if you like to hear something different, here is your chance. But from a strictly musical point of view I hesitate to recommend this disc, as it has too many shortcomings to really satisfy the critical listener.

(*) All these recordings have been reviewed on this site; look under CD reviews.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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