Homilius’ Shining St. Mark

Review by: David Vernier

homiliusmark

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This beautifully performed and recorded rendition of Gottfried Homilius’ St. Mark Passion claims to be a world premiere, and we can assume that the only reason for the work’s obscurity until now is that its composer’s career fell in the years overlapping those of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart (1714-1785). The overwhelming popularity of those latter three in the modern era effectively sidelined many very fine works and their composers, a few of whom are now getting their due. And within the first few minutes of listening, you know that this work, with its captivating opening chorus (worthy of comparison to Bach in both scope and musical effect) is no “ordinary” effort of form and function, no process of imitation or formula; it’s a work of refined originality, melodic invention both beautiful and eloquently expressive (in both arias and recitatives), and equally notable for the affecting employment of the orchestra.

Following three years as organist at Dresden’s Frauenkirche, in the mid-1740s Homilius became music director of the city’s main churches. He was not simply a competent caretaker of his duties, as were many church composer/Kapellmeisters who earned their obscurity; in fact he was highly regarded in his own time–and for some substantial period after–and his music was widely performed (this St. Mark Passion was a favorite of C.P.E. Bach). As you listen to this two-hour-long work, you appreciate its organizational sophistication, as it flows so easily through its perfectly arranged sequence of arias, recits, choruses, and chorale settings.

Although the form is of the earlier mode epitomized by J.S. Bach–the Passion-Oratorio comprised of both poetic texts and those drawn directly from the Bible–Homilius’ music is very much of its time (mid-1700s) and place (Dresden). While there are certainly many moments reminiscent of Bach (Homilius likely was a student of Bach for a time in Leipzig), the overall character here is closer to the empfindsamer style that emphasized simplicity, melodic prominence, textural transparency, and “sensitivity” of expressive effects.

That’s not to say that this St. Mark Passion is in any way a delicate, gentle, or “simple” piece: it’s moving, powerful, richly colorful, delivering a cumulative, satisfying, memorable experience of the passion story that compels repeated listening; but neither does it hit you with the sheer drama and emotional impact of a Bach St. Matthew or St. John. Yet it’s loaded with lovely arias, exciting choruses, and recitatives that perfectly capture the natural course and sense of the dialogue.

The performances of this truly shining St. Mark are absolutely first rate all around, from chorus to soloists, to the exceptionally gorgeous-sounding orchestra, all under the knowing and caring hand of director Fritz Näf. The sound, from the Reformierte Kirche Arlsheim, couldn’t be bettered.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

  • Monika Mauch (soprano); Ruth Sandhoff (alto); Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor/Evangelist); Thomas Laske (baritone/Jesus)
  • Basler Madrigalisten; L'arpa festante, Fritz Näf


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