A curiously forgotten and fairly prolific Baroque composer, Johann David Heinichen, was a contemporary of Bach; and like him, arose from St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and later wrote music for the Dresden courts and churches.
Also trained in Italy, Heinichen wrote a considerable number of ‘sepulchri’: short church cantatas with Italian texts that were generally performed at gravesites on Good Fridays. Two of them, recently recorded by the Kölner Akademie on the CPO Deutschlandfunk label, are modest compositional gems for Easter that shine a softer spiritual light on the Crucifixion drama.
For this recording project, which is a world premiere, director/conductor Michael Alexander Willens assembled a skilled quartet of singers who portray the various roles of Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John, Divine Love, Penitence, a Centurion, and Death. Each cantata, approximately 40 minutes in length, gives the listener a poetic approach provided by the well-known Dresden court librettist of the era, Stefano Pallavicino. The instrumentation is particularly interesting from the standpoint of less-is-more: due to the church’s expectations of fewer loud instruments for the somber occasion, Heinrichen often employed oboe trios and flute choirs to color the textural needs for delicate expression.
“Come? S’imbruna il ciel! Occhi piangete! (1728) (What? The skies darken and our eyes weep!) opens with a colorful chorus – here performed only by the soloists – followed by a soprano aria that has the infectious melodic and rhythmic spirit of Telemann. Elena Harsány’s exquisite soprano sweetly expresses her joy at washing Christ’s feet and pouring spices and fragrances on his dying body.
The Virgin Mary’s aria, expressing the horror of what she sees: wounds, blood, thorns and nails, turns those elements of torture into an ethereal paean to her son with blissful worship. Mezzo-soprano Elvira Bill’s burnished and powerful voice contrasts with a floaty flute choir in this quizzical interpretation of the brutal reality of his suffering.
Tenor Mirko Ludwig as John, both commenting and lamenting beside the two women, excels in his vocalism with excellent Italian; and bass-baritone Andreas Wolf as the Centurion also sings (with great skill and tonal allure) another oddity – an aria whose music’s major-mode and triumphal mood is a curious match to his vigorously stated wrath.
“Lauride tempie ignude” (circa 1724) (Laurels of Triumph) gives the character of Death (bass-baritone) a potent role, with edgy recitatives and florid arias with which to spread his ignominy. The mezzo role of Divine Love’s first aria uses unusual chromatic phrases to paint her languishing love as she sees Jesus also languishing in pain. Penitence’s (tenor) tears are illustrated by a trio of oboes as he weeps by the tomb, and Hope (soprano) has one of the most interesting and imaginative arias — comparing the breezy light rain that nourishes the plants to how blood nourishes the soul. Harsány delivers it with breathy ecstasy and glorious tone.
Under Willen’s expert direction, both cantatas have crisp tempos, clean execution, and excellent recording quality. Though Heinichen offers delicious arias with passionate texts for all voices, the overall effect is somewhat less musically complex than those of his more famous contemporaries. Nevertheless, this is a sweet recording and the performance quality is top notch.