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Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704-1759)/Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771)
Apollo & Dafne - Italian Cantatas
Carl Heinrich or Johann Gottlieb GRAUN
Disperata Porcia [18:08]
Carl Heinrich GRAUN
Sinfonia to Cinna [07:38]
Carl Heinrich or Johann Gottlieb GRAUN
Apollo amante di Dafne [18:14]
Carl Heinrich GRAUN
Lavinia a Turno [23:50]
Hannah Morrison (soprano)
Recorded 2019 at the Petruskirche, Gießen, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
ACCENT ACC 24362 [68:03]

In recent years a number of discs have been released, which bear witness to the growing interest in the music written by composers connected to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Two of these composers were the Graun brothers, Johann Gottlieb and his younger brother Carl Heinrich. As many of their works are signed with "di Graun" or "del Signor Graun", it is often not possible to discern the compositions of the two brothers with any amount of certainty. Johann Gottlieb was educated as a violinist, whereas Carl Heinrich was first and foremost active as a singer. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that most of the instrumental works are from the former's pen, and most of the vocal pieces were written by Carl Heinrich.

Overall, the instrumental works are much better represented on disc than the vocal compositions. Carl Heinrich has become best known for his Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu, and in recent years some other oratorios have been recorded. He composed a large number of operas; Montezuma is virtually the only work in this genre which has become part of the repertoire. On the disc under review here, this part of his output is represented by the overture to Cinna, which was first performed in 1748 in Berlin. It is in the common Italian form of three movements in the order fast - slow - fast.

The three cantatas also have their roots in Italy. Such pieces were first written in the mid-17th century, by the likes of Barbara Strozzi, Giacomo Carissimi and Alessandro Stradella. It was Alessandro Scarlatti who laid down its basic form and whose own output in this genre resulted in its huge popularity. Many composers contributed to the genre, and their cantatas belonged to the core repertoire performed at the Arcadian academies, which were were founded across Italy in the early 18th century.

Two of the cantatas included here are by one of the Grauns; only in the case of Lavinia a Turno, the authorship of Carl Heinrich is established. In their basic structure, they are similar. All of them consist of two pairs of recitative and aria. However, Disperata Porcia opens with a short instrumental introduction, whereas in Apollo amante di Dafne the soprano opens the proceedings. Two of the cantatas are based on stories from Greek mythology: Apollo amante di Dafne (from Ovid's Metamorphoses) and Lavinia a Turno (from Virgil's Aeneid). The third, Disperata Porcia, roots in Roman history: Porcia is the wife of Caesar's murderer, Brutus. Only in the case of Lavinia a Turno, the author of the libretto is known: Maria Antonia Walpurgis of Bavaria, from 1747 Elector of Saxony, and a composer herself.

Most of Carl Heinrich's cantatas are scored for tenor, and very likely written for his own voice. These three cantatas are for soprano, and Martin Mezger, in his liner-notes, assumes that they were intended for performance by castratos who participated in opera performances in Berlin after Frederick had become King of Prussia (in 1740). That could give us an indication about the time they were written. In character these cantatas show strong similarity with opera. Disperata Porcia, for instance, ends with a true rage aria, and there are various accompanied recitatives, which offer the composer the opportunity to illustrate and emphasize particularly dramatic moments.

Apollo amante di Dafne focuses on the end of the story, where Daphne turns into a laurel tree. It opens with Apollo creaming: "Stop, cruel Daphne: Are you fleeing from Apollo?" In the first aria he expresses his love, to the accompaniment of muted strings. In the first aria of Disperata Porcia, the protagonist expresses the wish to die, which is vividly depicted in the music, for instance through harmony and the use of sighing figures. In the last recitative from Lavinia a Turno, the dramatic development is underlined by a turn from secco to accompanied recitative.

Some arias are quite long, and could easily be taken for full-blood opera arias. An example is 'Placa lo sdegno' from Lavinia a Turno which takes more than twelve minutes. That poses a great challenge to the interpreters, first of all the soloist. Hannah Morrison has a lovely voice, and I have enjoyed her performances in sacred music of the baroque era, for instance cantatas by Bach and Telemann. I am not sure that she has the voice and the personality for more dramatic secular stuff, such as the cantatas by the Grauns. The more lyrical arias come off best by far, but the dramatic elements, and especially the rage aria I mentioned above, make little impression. Overall I find her treatment of the material too restrained. Her singing is a bit too one-dimensional, both in the recitatives and in the arias. I often complain about unstylish and exaggerated ornamentation; some singers tend to rewrite entire lines in the dacapos. Morrison, on the other hand, is too economical in this department, and that is one of the reasons this recording does not really satisfy me. The playing of the Main-Barockorchester is too straightforward. It includes here six violins and two violas. I don't know whether the scores indicate that the string parts have to be performed with more than one instrument per part. I assume that this line-up is the result of a decision on the part of the performers. Unfortunately it is not discussed in the liner-notes.

This disc is certainly welcome as it sheds light on an aspect of music life at Frederick's court, which is hardly explored as yet. And the vocal music of the Graun brothers deserves more attention. There is little wrong with the singing and playing as such, as all the artists involved are outstanding performers. It is just unfortunate that the dramatic aspects are seriously underexposed.

Johan van Veen

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