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Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714 - 1785): Johannespassion (St John Passion) (HoWV 1.4)

Jana Reiner, Katja Fischer, soprano; Franz Vitzthum, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Tobias Berndt, Clemens Heidrich, bass
Dresdner Kreuzchor; Dresdner Barockorchester
Dir: Roderich Kreile

rec: March 13 - 17, 2006, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.261 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.59'10")

It is sometimes difficult to understand why a specific composer all of a sudden experiences a kind of 'renaissance'. That is certainly the case with Gottfried August Homilius. For a long time this was merely a name from the circle around Johann Sebastian Bach, as he was one of his pupils. At least among organists he was a well-known figure: he composed a large number of organ works, among them chorale arrangements which were useful to play during Sunday services, at least in protestant churches in Germany and other countries on the European continent where chorales of German origin are sung. But as a composer of vocal works he was a completely unknown quantity. Many years ago the German conductor Hermann Max recorded some of his motets with his Jugendkantorei Dormagen (now the Rheinische Kantorei). And later one of his Passions was recorded. But neither of them led to the Homilius renaissance we experience now.

The German label Carus has played a considerable role in this renaissance: all recent recordings of Homilius's works have appeared on this label. It started with a collection of motets, recorded by the Stuttgart Chamber Choir, directed by Frieder Bernius. Then two discs with cantatas were released. This year two other recordings appeared, both 'world premiere recordings', as the covers say. Apart from the St John Passion the Passion cantata 'Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld' was released. These two works are both written for Passiontide, but otherwise are very different in character.

The number of copies of Homilius' sacred works testify how highly regarded he was in his time. And writers about music from the last quarter of the 18th century praised him as "the best composer of church music" (Johann Friedrich Reichardt, 1776) or "without argument, our greatest church composer" (Ernst Ludwig Gerber, 1790). As late as 1826 the musicologist Hans Georg Nägeli wrote: "But he, Homilius, was the first who in his choruses delivered the German language with the strength, which elevates the chorus to a much more spiritual product of art as even Bach's art of writing fugues was able to do."

But eventually most of Homilius's sacred music disappeared into oblivion. The finding of the archive of the Berlin Singakademie in Kiev in 1999 has borne fruit in that hitherto unknown compositions, in particular by composers of the generation of the sons of Bach, have been found or manuscripts in the archive made it possible to solve questions regarding the authorship of compositions which were already known from other sources. That has also been the case in regard to this St John Passion. Manuscripts from the archive made it possible to confirm that this composition was written by Homilius. The booklet doesn't tell when it was composed, so I assume that is not known. It can't be later than 1776: that year it was performed by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Hamburg, who had also performed Homilius' St Mark Passion in 1770 and his St Luke Passion in 1775.

This work is written in the tradition of the oratorio Passion like those by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is based on the Biblical account of the suffering and death of Jesus, with additional chorales and arias. It is not known who wrote the texts of the arias. Sacred music of Homilius' time often reflects the spirit and ideals of the Enlightenment, a central element of which was the moral edification of the people. Often arias address the audience, telling them how to behave towards their neighbours, but in this Passion that is hardly the case. In this respect it is closer to Johann Sebastian Bach's Passions than to Telemann's, for instance. Most arias are a direct reaction to what just happens with Jesus, and the personal guilt is often emphasized. For instance, when Peter has denied Christ, the soprano sings an accompanied recitative containing a line like "God, so often have I boldly strayed, stubbornly disavowed you, and failed in my duty to you". And the following aria says: "To you, the Father who forgives, I bewail my fall with remorse. Ah Father! Father of mercifulness! May God be gracious and forgive me". This is not fundamentally different from the aria 'Erbarme dich' in Bach's St Matthew Passion sung at this very moment in the story.

There is one aspect where this oratorio Passion embraces a feature of the contemporary Passion oratorio, a genre which contains a paraphrase of and a contemplation on the Passion: one or more arias are given to Jesus. This happens once: when he meets Judas and his gang he sings "Now comes the hour of my suffering, I praise God that it may come. I drink the cup of wrath rejoicing, I drink it for my brothers." In the second part even God the Father has an aria. When Jesus has told Pilate: "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above", the following aria says: "I am the Almighty, the heavens and worlds, the whole of unending Creation is mine." In Bach's cantatas we also meet the vox Dei, but there it has always texts from the Bible, no free poetry like here. In both cases Homilius's score doesn't mention either Christ or God the Father, but the content of these arias is very obvious.

The musical language of sacred music from Homilius's time often causes problems to those listeners who are acquainted with the style of Bach's Passions. In the booklet Uwe Wolf writes: "the arias make an unusually straightforward, and perhaps also slightly saccharine impression. They are notable examples of Homilius' quest for simple, agreeable music. Indicative for the era is the slow rate at which the basic chords change, and also that the full orchestra is wholly subservient to the one melody – typical characteristics of the arias from the period which brought this church music into great disrepute in the 20th century". It has to be added that this quest for "simple, agreeable music" is no specialty of Homilius: it reflects the ideal of the Enlightenment which I already referred to. Not only the arias are evidence of this, but also the recitatives: there are no frequent modulations in the Evangelist's recitatives as in Bach's Passions.

This should not create the impression the music is uninteresting or predictable. Far from it. There are some examples of Homilius versatility and originality in his dealing with the form of the aria. Most of them are written in the dacapo form, but there are some where that form is dropped. Interesting is Jesus' aria in the first part which I have already mentioned. Here the B section is an accompanied recitative. And that is followed by a repeat of the music of the A-section but with a different text. The second part contains a duet – the only one in this work – for two sopranos, representing an old and a young person respectively, in which the dacapo form is extended: the pattern is ABACA – the C section being sung by one of the sopranos only.

There are several moments where the text is effectively translated into music, for instance in using melismas on words like "weinen" (weep), "verzeihen" (forgive), "Seligkeit" (salvation) and "Freude" (joy). Homilius is well aware of the apparatus of musical figures so characteristic of the German baroque, as he shows in the use of a sudden leap downwards on "Fall" (fall) in the aria "Vor dir, dem Vater, der verzeiht, bewein ich meinen Fall voll Reue" (To you, the Father who forgive, I bewail my fall with remorse.) In the chorale "Gloria sei dir gesungen" – a song of praise for the Kingdom of Heaven which comes, following Jesus saying "now is my kingdom not from hence" – Homilius uses the full power of the horns to emphasize its jubilant character.

How large the forces were which Homilius used to perform his St John Passion is difficult to say. One can be sure, though, that he didn't have a choir as large as the Dresdner Kreuzchor, which sings very well, although the trebles may be a little too dominating. I had liked the chorales to be sung with a bit less legato, stressing the individual words more. The turbae come out very impressively, and the chorale "Gloria sei dir gesungen" as well as the closing chorus "O Gottes Lamm" are beautifully realised. The orchestra is excellent, thoughout, and is very colourful. The balance and blending between the singers and the orchestra is very good, which is especially important as often the instruments double or octavate the vocal lines.

Jan Kobow gives an immaculate interpretation of the part of the Evangelist and of the tenor arias. He has a very clear voice, perfect diction and articulation and sings his part with the right amount of rhythmic freedom. Tobias Berndt is less satisfying in his account of the part of Jesus, which is a little too stiff and too bland. In his arias he is much better. Jana Reiner and Katja Fischer – the latter only sings in the duet – and Franz Vitzthum also give very fine performances. The duet of the two sopranos is one of the highlights of this oratorio.

As you will be able to gather from what I have written I am very happy with this release. The St John Passion by Homilius is a very interesting and musically rewarding addition to the repertoire of Passion music. It also gets a very fine performance here, which I strongly recommend.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Gottfried August Homilius

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