Homilius: St. Mark Passion / Mauch, Sandhoff, Mammel, Laske, Naf

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A worthy addition to the repertoire for Passiontide.

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 Mark Passion. 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 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. 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 the turbae 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, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CV83260

  • UPC: 4009350832602

  • Label: Carus

  • Composer: Gottfried August Homilius

  • Conductor: Fritz Naf

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Basel Madrigalists, L'Arpa Festante, Munich Baroque Orchestra

  • Performer: Hans Jörg Mammel, Monika Mauch, Ruth Sandhoff, Thomas Laske