musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714 - 1785): Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld, Passion cantata (HoWV 1.2)

Monika Mauch, soprano; Bogna Bartosz, contralto; Markus Brutscher, tenor; Hans Christoph Begemann bass
Basler Madrigalisten; Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik
Dir: Fritz Näf

rec: March 20 - 22, 2006, Arlesheim (Switzerland), Reformierte Kirche
Carus - 83.262 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.33'47")

During the 17th and 18th centuries many Passions have been written by German composers. Until the first half of the 18th century those were oratorio Passions, which 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. In the first half of the 18th century a new genre emerged: the so-called Passion oratorio. This 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 century they became part of religious services as well. Some composers wrote Passion music of both genres, like Telemann and also Gottfried August Homilius.

The most famous Passion oratorio in Germany was Carl Heinrich Graun's Der Tod Jesu. The text was written by the poet Carl Wilhelm Ramler, and was also used by Telemann. This text strongly reflects the spirit of the Enlightenment, and as a result is rather moralistic. Jesus is an example of absolute virtue, and mankind should follow in his footsteps. Homilius' oratorio certainly bears the traces of the Enlightenment too, but the difference between this work's text and Ramler's 'Der Tod Jesu' can hardly be overlooked. In Ramler's work the element of personal sin – Jesus is suffering in the sinner's place – is put into the sidelines and makes place for an expression of the wish to follow Jesus' example. That is certainly not the case in Homilius' oratorio, the text of which was written Ernst August Buschmann, who from 1759 to 1775 was pastor in Löbnitz, near Leipzig. The title of the oratorio, also the first line of the opening chorus, is an indication of its content: "A little lamb goes bearing the guilt of the world and its children. It goes patiently atoning for the sins of all sinners." It is the first stanza of a well-known Passion hymn by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The oratorio contains five choruses and two ariosos where passages from the Bible are quoted. These are all referring to sin and the hope for redemption, which is underlined by the texts of the chorales. In regard to content this oratorio is closer to Bach's Passions than to Der Tod Jesu.

The recitatives are either accompanied, in particular the most dramatic ones, or secco (with basso continuo only). Features of these recitatives are the shifting perspective, their tone of commitment and their sometimes very dramatic character. The recitative "Die Mörder kommen schon" in the first part shows this very clearly. It describes how Judas and his gang are coming to capture Jesus. The singer (tenor) first asks: "Ah! disciples, will you go on sleeping?" and urges them "wake, wake, and all of you, pray". Then he returns to reporting what happens: "In bonds he is led to his judges." He then leaves his neutral stance to say: "Here sits the band of venerable elders, and each of them is a miscreant who hates Jesus Christ". Then he addresses Peter: "Ah, Peter, you who wanted to die with him, feeble man, now betraying the duty that you should be doing, do you know not Jesus?" Some recitatives are very dramatic, like the beginning of "Seht, wie Jerusalem sich wider ihn empöret!" (See how Jerusalem rages against him!) (part 1) or "Zerreiße, Golgatha" (Break asunder, Golgatha, and earth, tremble) (part 2).

It was quite usual in Passions of both genres to give arias to Jesus. Although the aria doesn't refer to him, it is clear from the text that in "Ich bete, zürnet nicht" Jesus is speaking: "I pray, do not rage, I am the man of sorrows". The tenor aria "Nun wird, mein Gott, dein Donner fassen" makes no specific reference to Peter, but it is obvious that he is speaking, right after his denial of Jesus: "Now will your thunderbolt, God, strike me, for I have denied you". It is typical, though, that into this aria a chorus is integrated in which the believers say "We fall before you, Jesus, what we have done". This way they acknowledge they are not better than Peter and have done the same as he. There is not much difference between the content of this aria and chorus and Bach's St Matthew Passion ("Erbarme dich").

Homilius very effectively translates the text into music. In particular the orchestra is used to express the content of the arias. In the B section of the aria "Wie tödlich schrecken die Gerichte" the held notes in the wind express the lamenting about the upcoming death of Jesus ("Earth, quake! end your fearful lament up to Heaven!"). Ascending figures depict the joy of the redemption through Jesus' death in "Nun sterb ich Sünder nicht": "Now, I, a sinner, shall not die, the Father will grant pardon". Very warlike is the aria "Umgürtet mit Gerechtigkeit": "Girded with righteousness, the hero now rushes into mighty combat, death must flee, and hell must shiver". Fast repeated figures express terror, wrath and thunder in "Bewaffne dich, Mächtger": "Arm yourself, mighty one, with terror and wrath, command the thunder with the voice of destruction". This aria strongly reminds me of the opening chorus of a cantata by Homilius (Verwundrung, Mitleid, Furcht und Schrecken). In the second part the bass, acting as vox Dei, sings an arioso on the words of Isaiah 43, v24: "Thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities". The singer is accompanied here by the low strings and the bassoons, a most eloquent expression of the content.

In the choruses homophony dominates, but Homilius shows he is able to write in polyphonic style as well: the last line of "Daran ist erschienen die Liebe Gottes" and the second section of "Israel, hoffe auf den Herrn" (Psalm 130, vv7-8) are fugues. After all Homilius was a pupil of Bach.

The general tenor of the oratorio is well expressed in the closing chorus (with alto solo): "Here hangs the sacrifice for man's sins, the blood of the great Peacemaker is flowing! Now can the Christian soul receive the comfort of having Christ as his Saviour."

This is the first recording ever of this oratorio, and I am very impressed by its quality. The more I hear of Homilius' sacred music, the more I am leaning towards the view that he must be considered one of the very best composers of religious music in Germany of the generation of the sons of Bach. No wonder that his compositions were widely spread in Germany and beyond. And I am very happy that there is something going on like a 'Homilius renaissance', as the cover of this disc states.

I am also very impressed by the performance. The soloists give splendid performances and express the content of arias and recitatives very well. I must say that the voice of Hans Christoph Begemann doesn't appeal to me, and it's a shame there is a slight tremolo in his voice. But on the whole this doesn't really devalue this recording. The Basler Madrigalisten are also giving immaculate performances of the choruses and the chorales. The orchestra is not that well-known yet but in my opinion one of the best baroque orchestras around, as it impressively shows in this recording.

This recording is definitely one of the best of this year.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Gottfried August Homilius

CD Reviews