Homilius: Der Messias

Maike Leluschka, Friederike Beykirch, Annekathrin Laabs, Patrick Grahl, Tobias Berndt, Sebastian Wartig SSmSTBB, Sächsisches Vokalensemble, Batzdorfer Hofkapelle, Matthias Jung
96:13 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
cpo 777 947-2

This is a first rate performance of one of Homilius’ Passion Oratorios, as the genre of free text works designed for performance in Passiontide came to be called, and received what was probably its first performance in the Frauenkirche in Dresden on Good Friday 1776. So popular was Homilius as a composer in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries that copies of his works have survived in a wide variety of places, but this one is found exclusively in Schwerin in Mecklenberg, north-east of Berlin, where the pietist Duke Friedrich maintained a musical ensemble; the same library also has materials for the earliest German performance of Handel’s Messiah there in 1780.

The two works could not be more different. While Jennens’ libretto for Handel was compiled as an exclusively Biblical catena of texts, the Homilius libretto is an imaginative reflection, introducing for example a meditation on Christ’s Transfiguration, inserted into the farewell discourses between the Last Supper and the garden of Gethsemene. Nor are the similarities between Homilius and a Bach Passion any greater, textually or musically.

Most obvious is the entirely different style of harmonizing the chorales. While, for all their chromaticisms and passing notes, Bach’s chorale settings relate harmonically to their sixteenth and seventeenth century origins, Homilius’ are entirely of their time, and offer a fascinating comparison. So too does the scoring: we are now into a ‘modern’ orchestra: a basic string band (here and an organ, and then the ‘harmonie’, pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, with timpani used to great effect for dramatic highlight. The whole sound of the classical period band and choir is inescapably modern. You have to listen no further than the first chorale, which is followed by an opening chorus to pick up the style.

I found the whole experience intriguing, but somewhat saccharine. The arias, even commenting on the death of Jesus, lack the austerity of the arias in the Bach Passions; and I miss the foundational thread of the stark Passion Narratives from the Gospels. The narrative momentum, such as it is, is largely given to the tenor whose text is delivered traditionally in a secco recitative with ‘cello and organ, but frequently breaks into a kind of accompagnato style with illustrative string figuration. The first bass, who takes the part of Jesus, introduces the struggle of Gethemene in the same mode, complete with foreboding timpani, while the reflective prayer in Gethsemene [7] is a duet for alto (the soul) and bass (Jesus) with an illustrative obligato flute and bassoon. The comment on Jesus’ arrest is a duet [9] meditating on the last judgement, with oboes prominent in the score, while the chorale that follows is set for solo soprano voice and organ, with a lute-like figuration of plucked strings trailing the warbling voice.

We hear the agile second soprano in [12] whose true voice I like better; the whole of the dramatic scene before Pilate is narrated by the tenor [13] while the choir ponders the fate of the people of Israel [14]. The first soprano takes up the narrative of the weight of the cross before the choir sing three verses of a chorale to conclude the first part.

Part II follows the same pattern: an opening chorale is followed by a slow-moving chorus setting Isaiah 53 – He was wounded for our transgressions – and Handelian like breaks into a chromatic fugue [1-2]. The tenor takes up the narrative of the crucifixion, which is followed by an enormously jolly duet for the sopranos on Es ist vollbracht, [4] and the first soprano and alto are entrusted with the drama of the earthquake and the prefiguring of the victory of the resurrection, with the alto having the following aria. Finally, after another recitative the tenor gets an aria in F major reflecting on the joy of suffering and eternal word in which the horns are prominent [9], and a soprano recitative introduces a concluding chorale and chorus [10 & 11] in which the soprano and chorus alternate. After which comfortable edification the listeners can presumably all go home to coffee and cake.

I have given readers a fairly exhaustive idea of the feel of this music so that they are in no doubt as to what they will find if they purchase it. Even allowing for my own prejudices in musical taste, the Pietist text would be worth scrutinising to assess what an immense gulf separates this work from a Bach Passion or a Handel Oratorio. Bach was indeed the last of the line. But I cannot imagine a better prepared and performed version of the Homilius Messias than this. The six soloists have gracious voices, and both choir and band are enormously convincing. I can see how German society, as the eighteenth century developed into the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, developed a set of bourgeois personal values that affected artistic and musical possibilities profoundly, and there are few religious works from this period that I find deeply challenging. But this is a splendid example of its genre – as far as my limited knowledge allows: I do not have a score of this music – and I commend the performance warmly.

David Stancliffe