Carl Heinrich Graun was a key figure in the musical life of Berlin
during the reign of Frederick II. He was Kapellmeister and mostly
responsible for the operahouse Frederick had founded in Berlin.
He composed a number of operas, which show a strong influence
of the Italian style of his time. His operas chased universal
approval in vain. The English music historian Charles Burney
judged them rather negatively. But others appreciated them highly.
Nowadays they are hardly performed, and Graun is much better-known
for his Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu, which was based
on a text by the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler, another prominent
figure in Berlin. Graun composed other religious works, which
are far less known. This disc offers us compositions from different
stages in Graun's career.
In the first half of the 18th century the motet was a genre in which
few composers had any interest. When they did compose motets,
these were mostly intended for special occasions, such as funerals
or commemoration services. CPO here presents three motets dating
from Graun's time in Dresden, when he was a singer in the Kreuzchor,
for which these motets were composed. They are written in a
style which was still in vogue at the time: polyphony dominates,
and all contain fugal sections. 'Machet die Tore weit' is interesting.
It is laid out for double choir. The text comes from Psalm 24,
which has elements of a dialogue: "Who is the King of Glory?
- He is the Lord, strong and mighty in battle". The dialogue
is not between the two choirs, as one would expect, but between
soli and tutti. Both this motet and 'Herr, ich habe lieb' contain
textual parallels, and Graun uses the same music for these passages.
The largest work here, the Te Deum, dates from a much later
period in Graun's life. In the 17th and 18th centuries this
text - probably dating from the 4th century - was set to music
by many composers, mostly for state occasions, in particular
celebrations of military victories. Graun's setting is no exception:
it was commissioned either by Frederick II or by his younger
sister Anna Amalia. In 1757 Prussian troops were close to a
military breakthrough in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), and
on 6 May the Prussian troops defeated the Austrians. On 15 May
the military victory was celebrated in St Peter's Church in
Berlin with Graun's Te Deum. There is no pomp and circumstance
in this work, partly because the score has no parts for trumpets
and timpani. There could be two reasons for this. On the one
hand the art of playing clarino trumpets was deteriorating around
the middle of the 18th century; it is no coincidence that Mozart,
in his arrangement of Handel's 'Messiah', replaced trumpets
with horns. But although the score has parts for two horns play
a far from prominent role. It is more likely that Graun deliberately
chose to set the text in a more intimate way than usual. The
character of the work as a whole also points in that direction.
Although the Te Deum was written only two years later than the
oratorio 'Der Tod Jesu', the arias are strongly different.
There are no da capo arias in the style of opera seria
here. There are repeats of parts of arias, but in a different
way than in Der Tod Jesu. The arias in the Te Deum
are also considerably shorter, and - with the exception
of the last aria, 'Dignare, Domine' – do not contain
This work is a mixture of traditional and new elements. The traditional
elements are the fugal passages in the choral sections. The
chorus which closes the Te Deum is a double fugue on the text
"In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum"
(O Lord, in Thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded).
Several choruses contain short solo sections. In the programme notes
Lukas Näf states that these could be sung by members of the
choir. Here they are performed by the soloists, and that is
just as well. The motet 'Machet die Tore weit' also contains
solo sections. Those are sung by members of the Basler Madrigalisten,
but I am not very impressed by their contributions. That is
also true for the choir as a whole. There is a lack of clarity,
mainly due to the use of vibrato - not very much, but just enough
to make the motets and the choral sections of the Te Deum less
transparent than they should be. There is also a lack of dynamic
differentiation, which is even more striking considering the
very agile and contrasting style of orchestral playing.
In general the soloists singing very well. Monika Mauch has a beautiful
and clear voice. She sings the previously mentioned aria 'Dignare,
Domine' quite superbly. That said, in her first aria, 'Tu, ad
liberandum', the text is difficult to make out. Bernhard Gärtner
impresses with his agile and flexible voice which is used to
great effect in the aria 'Te per orbem'. Klaus Mertens has only
one short aria, which he sings well, supported by the splendid
basso continuo group, with Rien Voskuilen as an imaginative
organist. Elisabeth von Magnus has never really impressed me,
and it’s no different here. She is merely reliable in her only
contribution, a duet with the tenor.
To sum up: these performances are probably not the best possible, but
in the absence of any better recordings this disc is certainly
recommendable. The Te Deum is a very attractive and strong
composition, which fully deserves to be performed and recorded.
And I certainly would like to hear more of Graun's motets.
Johan van Veen