musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714 - 1785), arr Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): St Luke Passion 1775 (HoWV I.5; H 788)

Il Fondamento
Dir: Paul Dombrecht

rec: July 8 - 11, 2013, Gijzegem, St Vicentius Kapel
Il Fondamento - IL1401 (© 2014) (76'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Caroline Weynants, Amélie Renglet, soprano; Clint van der Linde, Rob Cuppens, alto; Reinoud Van Mechelen (Evangelist), Thibaut Lenaerts, tenor; Huub Claessens (Jesus), Lieven Termont (Petrus, Pilatus), bass

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the most famous composers of his time. In the mid-18th century the name 'Bach' referred to him rather than to his father. His reputation is largely based on his qualities as a performer on the keyboard and a composer of music for his own instrument. That part of his oeuvre receives most attention, and especially since the first commemoration year (1988) his instrumental music is regularly performed and recorded. The vocal music is the latest part of his oeuvre which is being rediscovered. Around 1988 the German conductor Hermann Max recorded some of his sacred works, but his example was hardly copied. Only some oratorios, such as Die Israeliten in der Wüste and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu have been recorded several times. His Passions have received little attention, and that can partly be explained by the fact that they were considered lost, as a result of the bombing of Hamburg in the latest years of World War II. Fortunately the musical archives were moved to Berlin and landed in the archive of the Singakademie which the Russians brought to Kiew. This archive has turned out to be a rich source of musical manuscripts, and includes many works which were assumed to be lost.

One of these works is the St Luke Passion which is the subject of this disc. Like his predecessor Telemann Bach had to compose every year a Passion for performance in the five main churches of Hamburg in the weeks before Easter. The narration of the four gospels were set in turn in a four-year cycle. In 1775 the gospel according to St Luke was to be set. The music has been lost, but the libretto has been preserved. In the archive of the Berlin Singakademie a libretto of a St Luke Passion was found which included remarks in Bach's handwriting. The piece is anonymous, but on the basis of a musical analysis experts believed it to be a work by Gottfried August Homilius. He is another composer whose vocal music has attracted much attention recently. It was already known that Bach mostly did not compose original music for his Passions but rather borrowed material from Passions and cantatas by other composers. Basically his Passions are pasticcios as they were known from opera.

This St Luke Passion is hardly a pasticcio as it includes no other material. Bach used Homilius' Passion and adapted it in various ways to his needs and possibilities. One feature of Passions in Hamburg was that they could not be too long as they had to fit a normal service. This explains that Bach has omitted the first 14 numbers of Homilius' Passion. The latter is known under the title Du starker Keltertreter, the first line of the opening chorus. You won't find that text in Bach's version. Other adaptations include transpositions, rewriting of melodies and changes in harmony as well as some textual changes. Even so, this is in fact the work of Homilius and his name is rightly mentioned first on the cover of this disc. That is more than Bach did: the libretto of his performance doesn't mention Homilius at all. His use of the latter's St Luke Passion didn't end here: some of the numbers he omitted in 1775 turn up in his St Mark Passion of 1778.

One could ask why Paul Dombrecht decided to perform this Passion in Bach's adaptation. The reason could have been the commemoration year 2014 as the recording took place in 2013. One can only hope that Homilius' version is going to be recorded some time, probably as part of the Homilius Edition by the German label Carus. That said, this version is valuable in its own right. It is musically worthwhile but also gives us more insight into Bach's practices in regard to the 'composition' of Passions. Dombrecht has delivered a very good performance. The line-up is pretty much in line with what Bach in Hamburg had at his disposal. The number of singers was not different from what Telemann had to work with: two singers per part. The only difference regards the alto part: Bach had one singer, Dombrecht uses two.

Reinoud Van Mechelen sings the part of the Evangelist and does so quite well, although a little too strict in time. I noted also what probably has to be called 'slips of the tongue'. Apparently nobody noticed it; this is a studio recording and errors could have been corrected. The part of Jesus is sung with sensitivity and authority by Huub Claessens. There are five arias which are all beautifully performed. I would like to single out two of them: 'Die Hölle rüstet sich zum Kriege' and 'Ich erhebe meine Blicke', sung by Caroline Weynants and Clint van der Linde respectively. The choruses come off very well, in the chorales I would have liked stronger dynamic accents.

Considering the importance of this release it is a shame that the booklet omits a German translation of the libretto. The liner-notes are hard to read; Il Fondamento should produce better booklets for its future releases.

N.B. More details about this work can be found here.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Il Fondamento

CD Reviews