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Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1703/04-1759)
Te Deum for solo voices, choir and orchestra [45:00]
Herr, ich habe lieb die Stätte deines Hauses, motet for 4 voices and bc [02:30]
Lasset uns freuen und fröhlich sein, motet for 4 voices and bc [02:51]
Machet die Tore weit, motet for 8 voices in 2 choirs and bc [08:46]
Monika Mauch (soprano); Elisabeth von Magnus (mezzo); Bernhard Gärtner (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass)
Basler Madrigalisten
L'Arpa Festante/Fritz Näf
rec. June 2005, Martinskirche, Basle, Switzerland. DDD
CPO 777 158-2 [59:17]

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 cadenzas.

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

 

 


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