The St Mark Passion by Gottfried August Homilius was dedicated to Princess
Anna Amalia, the composing sister of Frederick the Great, around the
year 1762. Homilius’s aesthetic was significantly different from
that of Bach but he shared with the older composer the use of a tenor
Evangelist, and this is one of a number of reasons why his Passion generates
a considerable amount of rigorous dramatic potential.
Homilius’s writing, as other releases in this series have shown,
is both direct (textually) and imaginative, orchestrally, without any
florid intercessions. This first-ever recording of the work reveals
what Carus has already shown in their discs of his music, namely that
Homilius, the Dresden Kantor, had both absorbed Bach’s structural
engineering in his Passions, but also drew the form out beyond the Baroque
into the early Classical period. It’s not surprising, at least
to me, to read that this work remained in the active repertoire in German
cities into the first third of the nineteenth century.
The series of chorals, choruses, recitatives and ariosos show technical
command of both form and pacing. Chorales are characteristically direct,
paying great attention to the conveyance of text - indeed this is something
Homilius is at pains to do throughout. Sometimes he widens dynamics
the better to draw out the texts still further. Orchestral effects remain
apposite but supportive of the texts, not decoratively symbolic of it,
or occasions for colouristic effect. There are moments, naturally, when
the orchestral forces amplify the music with considerable intensity,
but these are largely confined to the later stages when agitated string
writing - jagged and angular - accompanies the travails of the Crucifixion.
Fortunately the singing, orchestral playing and conducting are generally
excellent. Soprano Monika Mauch has a very ‘white’ voice,
largely devoid of vibrato, and allergic to trills, but it is convincing
in this repertoire. As the Evangelist, Hans Jörg Mammel is laudable.
The way he negotiates his full-scale aria Verdammt ihn nur
to appreciate the strength and accuracy of his divisions, and also to
feel something of the operatic weight that sometimes is allowed to infiltrate
the music. Mezzo soprano Ruth Sadhoff takes Verkennt ihn nicht
well. It’s a fast aria in which brass and percussion play an important
dramatic part. Some of Jesus’s lines sit a little high for the
baritone Thomas Laske, and one notes his accommodations necessary to
transmit the arias in particular. But he remains a potent artist in
Perhaps the real stars of the show are the forces of L’arpa festante,
under the imaginative direction of Fritz Näf, who play splendidly
throughout the length of the Passion. If you have followed Homilius
in this Carus series, you will find this world première recording
to be an essential purchase.
And the earlier review by Johan van Veen ...
About ten years ago the German label Carus started a project of recording
compositions by Gottfried August Homilius and publishing the scores.
This has borne fruit in a series of remarkable productions, with cantatas,
motets and passions (see below). No fewer than three of the latter genre
have been released so far, the latest being this setting of the St
. It is not documented when it was written, but there
is evidence that it was performed a couple of years before 1765 in Berlin.
Homilius' Passions were quite famous and were performed in the German-speaking
world well into the 19th century. That is the more remarkable as they
had to compete with the then most celebrated Passion, Der Tod Jesu
by Carl Heinrich Graun, which dates from 1755.
The latter is a 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. This St Mark Passion
belongs to the older type of the oratorio passion
by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is based on the Biblical account of the
suffering and death of Jesus, with additional chorales and arias. Even
so, this work is quite different from Bach's Passions in various ways.
It is interesting to compare Homilius's Passion with Bach's St Matthew
Passion. This will reveal in what way the Passions from the Enlightenment
differ from those of the previous era. Bach's Passion is written in
the spirit of Luther's theology of the Cross, which emphasized that
the suffering and death of Jesus for the sins of mankind are an absolute
precondition to receiving the grace of God. In order to imprint this
into the minds of the congregation it should 're-experience' as it were
Jesus' sufferings and take part in the unfolding of the events as described
in the gospels. To that end the references to the happy outcome of Jesus'
passion are very limited. It is telling that Bach's St Matthew Passion
ends with an expression of grief on Jesus' death. This Passion by Homilius
ends on a positive note: "God is reconciled, he layeth down his thunders.
(...) The heavens exult, with hallelujahs echoing. Join forces with
them in this solemn song!" The scene which describes the Last Supper
is followed by an aria of an uplifting character, referring to the Lord's
Supper which is celebrated in the Christian church: "If by sin ye are
distressed, come and the Lord will refresh you. (...) O taste and see
how gracious he is!" It is followed by a chorus which expresses the
same thought. This connection is completely absent in Bach's Passion.
The purpose of the congregation 're-experiencing' the events also explains
the dramatic character of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Homilius's St Mark
Passion is considerably less dramatic. A typical example is the scene
where the High Priest asks Jesus whether he is the son of God. Jesus
answers: "I am, and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right
hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." In Bach's Passion
the Evangelist immediately mentions the High Priest rending his clothes
and saying that Jesus has spoken blasphemy. Homilius inserts a chorale,
and only then the Evangelist recounts the response of the High Priest.
The same happens in the scene of Peter denying Jesus. After his last
denial Bach's Evangelist tells that the cock crew and that Peter wept
bitterly. In Homilius's Passion the last denial is followed by an aria:
"Do not misconceive the God of gods! His anger flares, go, kiss the
Son!" In these passages the inclusion of a chorale and an aria respectively
interrupt the dramatic flow of the story.
The aria just mentioned reveals a feature of this Passion which clearly
reflects the spirit of the Enlightenment. In Bach's Passions the arias
express the emotions the congregation is supposed to feel while witnessing
the sufferings of Jesus: "May my weeping and my mourning be a welcome
sacrifice" (Buss und Reu), "I wish my heart to offer thee" (Ich will
dir mein Herze schenken), "Have mercy, Lord, on me" (Erbarme dich).
It is the congregation speaking; in Homilius the congregation is addressed.
They are warned: "Be merciful, o mortal man, break thou thy bread with
the hungry". That is the opening sentence of the first aria which follows
the scene when Jesus' disciples complain about the woman pouring ointment
on Jesus' head. This shows that the arias often have a strong moral
content. In other arias participants in the story are addressed: "Condemn
him, if ye must, ye unjust judges", but "when the Son of Man shall return
as judge on the clouds of heaven, then flee, evildoers, flee!"
The recitatives of the Evangelist bear witness to the less dramatic
character of Homilius's St Mark Passion as well. They are more straightforward,
and the text is less drastically depicted in the music. The compass
of this part is considerably narrower and there are far fewer modulations.
The most dramatic parts of this Passion are the arias. The tenor aria
mentioned above, 'Verdammt ihn nur, ihr ungerechten Richter' is a kind
of operatic rage aria. There’s drama also in the two accompanied
recitatives of the soprano in the second part, which strongly contrast
with the ensuing arias. Some arias are quite long: several take seven
or eight minutes. The most expressive of these is also the longest:
'Ich geh, von Leiden ganz'. The words are put into the mouth of Jesus
(another feature of Enlightenment Passions): "I go hence, surrounded
by sorrow on all sides, and there is none to ask: Whither goest thou?"
Its expressive character is reinforced by the strings playing with mutes.
The mixture of 'old' and 'new' elements has resulted in a compelling
Passion with music of great beauty and incisive expression. The performance
does full justice to its character and quality. Hans Jörg Mammel
gives an excellent account of the part of the Evangelist, in a true
declamatory manner. The part of Jesus is lighter than in other Passions:
Thomas Laske is a baritone rather than a bass, and his agile voice perfectly
suits this part. His aria which I already mentioned is one of the most
moving parts and is exquisitely sung. His voice is more powerful in
the aria 'Mit Preis und Ruhm gekrönt'. Monika Mauch has a beautiful
and clear voice; especially moving is the aria in the second part, following
the death of Jesus: "Flow, flow, ye tears!" The dramatic accompanied
recitatives I referred to are not lost on her either. No less beautiful
is the voice of Ruth Sandhoff, whose warm timbre suits the aria 'Wenn
euch eure Sünden drücken'.
The Basler Madrigalisten are a vocal ensemble of twenty voices and sing
in a fitting dramatic fashion. The chorales are often
a weak spot in recordings of works like this, but not here. Words and
phrases are effectively singled out, for instance through dynamic accents,
such as in the last lines of 'O weh demselben' (CD 1, track 13). The
articulation is also immaculate. The orchestra gives full weight to
the dramatic aspects, and displays its expressive powers in the arias.
This recording shows why Homilius was considered the greatest German
composer of sacred music in his time. It is a worthy addition to the
repertoire for Passiontide.
Johan van Veen
Reviews of Homilius recordings on Carus