Johann Gottlieb Graun was one of three brothers, who all
made a career in music. The eldest, August Friedrich, became
choirmaster and teacher at the cathedral school in Merseburg.
Both Johann Gottlieb and his younger brother Carl Heinrich
attended the Kreuzschule in Dresden and later studied at Leipzig
University. It isn't the only similarity between them. In
many cases it is difficult to tell their compositions apart,
as most manuscripts are only signed 'Graun', without any specification.
Johann Gottlieb received lessons on the violin from the
then most prominent violinist in Germany, Johann Georg Pisendel.
He also travelled to Italy, where he became acquainted with
Giuseppe Tartini. Back home he was appointed concertmaster
of the orchestra of the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, while
Carl Heinrich got the position of Kapellmeister. Graun held
this position until his death. In the court orchestra, which
moved to Berlin when Frederick became King of Prussia, he
introduced the orchestral discipline he had experienced when
he studied with Pisendel in Dresden. As a result the orchestra
was, according to Charles Burney, "the most excellent
in Europe". Graun was also active as a violin teacher;
among his pupils were Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Franz Benda.
From 1733 onwards Benda was also a member of Frederick's orchestra.
The largest part of Johann Gottlieb’s oeuvre consists of
instrumental music, whereas his brother concentrated on vocal
music, and became particularly famous for his operas. JG Graun
composed many concertos, mostly for violin, which were to
be played by himself and reflect his own skills as a violin
virtuoso. Burney reports that he was greatly admired as a
composer who combined pleasant melodies with counterpoint
and was generally considered "one of the greatest violinists
of his day". The two violin concertos recorded here are
both good examples of Graun's qualities as a violinist. In
the Concerto in d minor it is especially the last movement
which contains a virtuosic violin part, characterised by polyphony.
In the Concerto in A both fast movements have brilliant solo
parts for the violin. The solo passages in the last movement
show a strong connection to the capricci which Pietro Antonio
Locatelli added to his violin concertos, which were published
as 'L'Arte del Violino'. Perhaps they can even be considered
a kind of tribute to Locatelli, who was present when Graun
played at the Prussian court in Berlin.
Solo concertos were usually written for specific musicians,
exploiting their particular qualities. One member of the court
orchestra was Ludwig Christian Hesse, according to Gerber's
'Lexikon der Tonkünstler' "one of Europe's premier gambists"
because of his "proficiency, neatness, and fire of his
execution". This explains why Graun composed no less
than five concertos for viola da gamba, which belong to the
most difficult compositions for the instrument. The fast movements
contain cadenzas - the one in the first movement is pretty
long. The booklet doesn't give any information as to whether
these are written out by Graun or improvised by the soloist.
The Sinfonia which opens the programme is a rather late
work, dating from 1768, and is written for strings with pairs
of transverse flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns as well as
three trumpets and timpani. The first movement begins with
a fanfare-like motif which is to return later. The middle
movement in which the trumpets and timpani keep silent, leans
towards the style of the Empfindsamkeit, as do the slow movements
of the solo concertos which display great expressiveness.
The fast movements refer to the Mannheim style, containing
strong dynamic contrasts.
Considering the quality of these compositions it is a shame
Johann Gottlieb Graun is overshadowed by his younger brother
Carl Heinrich. That was already the case in his own time.
This is probably first and foremost because he did not compose
operas and opera was in those days the main interest of audiences.
This recording is most welcome as it pays tribute to Johann
Gottlieb Graun as a composer of fine music and gives some
idea of his own brilliance as a performer. The Viola da gamba
Concerto is a vivid illustration of the praise the gambist
Hesse received from his contemporaries.
The soloists on this recording give brilliant performances
and play their parts with much imagination and boldness, but
also with great sensitivity, in particular in the slow movements.
The way Vittorio Ghielmi deals with his capricious solo part
is most admirable. The orchestra is in excellent form throughout,
and the wind players are impressive in the opening Sinfonia.
This recording offers a musical adventure not to be missed.