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Christoph GRAUPNER (1683-1760): "My faith stands firm - Cantatas for Bass Voice"

Michael Hix, baritone
Stephen Redfield, Davd Felberg, violin; Jeffrey Smith, viola; Katie Rietman, Sally Gunther, cello; Kristin Ditlow, harpsichord

rec: Jan 14 - 15 & June 14, 2022, Albuquerque, NM, University of New Mexico (Keller Hall)
Affetto Recordings - AF2301 (© 2023) (50'34")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Du edles Kleinod jener Höhen (GWV 1164/20); Gottlob, mein Glaube stehet feste (GWV 1152/20); Halte an am Glaubensstreit (GWV 1121/22); Mein Herz soll nach des Höchsten Willen (GWV 1113/13)

The cantatas of Christoph Graupner have received quite some interest in recent years, resulting in a number of recordings, most of which have been reviewed on this site. Among them were only a few solo cantatas. That is rather surprising, considering that he has left a substantial number of such works. The liner-notes to the disc under review here mention that 47 cantatas are scored for bass solo; I don't know how many Graupner has written for other voice types. As Bach's oeuvre includes only a few solo cantatas, one would expect singers to look for additional cantatas from the oeuvre of his contemporaries. Maybe there are still many singers who are not acquainted with Graupner's sacred oeuvre. With time we will certainly see more recordings of this part of his output. The track-list of the present disc indicates that three of the four cantatas performed here are first recordings. That makes this disc a substantial addition to the discography.

It is a little odd that Michael Hix, in his liner-notes to this recording, states that it "features cantatas and instrumental works composed between 1720 and 1745". First, there are no instrumental works here. Were they planned to be included? If so, why were they omitted? It may explain the rather short duration of this disc. Second, the cantatas which were recorded date from 1713, 1720 and 1722 respectively. The catalogue numbers consist of two elements: the first refers to the Sunday or feast-day for which a cantata was written, the second to the year of composition.

The liner-notes offer a general survey of Graupner's life and work, but don't go into any detail with regard to individual cantatas. Even the scoring and the day for which they were written is omitted. As far as the former aspect is concerned: all cantatas are for bass, accompanied by strings and basso continuo. The structure is different, though.

The earliest cantata is Mein Herz soll nach des Höchsten Willen, which was written for the second Sunday after Epiphany 1713. The gospel of that Sunday was taken from John 2, which tells about Jesus's presence at a wedding in Cana. The connection between the libretto and the Gospel seems rather loose. It rather focuses on the need to obey God's will and accept the suffering which comes with it. The structure of the cantata is rather unusual: it opens with an accompanied recitative, which is followed by two arias, each turning into another accompanied recitative.

Two cantatas date from 1720. Gottlob, mein Glaube stehet feste was written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, when the Gospel was from Luke 18, which includes the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The heart of the story is the question which one receives God's grace. The tenor of the cantata is the firmness of the faith of the Christian. The first recitative says: "Jesus himself is the one who promises me the treasure". The Christian puts himself into the shoes of the publican. The structure is rather common: three arias are separated by secco recitatives. It is notable that in all three arias the violins play in unison.

Du edles Kleinöd jener Höhen is a cantata for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel is taken from Matthew 22, where the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. The libretto is probably rather connected to the Epistle of that Sunday, which is from Paul's letter to the Philippians. In chapter 3 he states that the citizenship of the faithful is in heaven. The cantata expresses the thought that life on earth "is not good enough for my spirit; a better life is raised up above me in heaven" (recitative 2). The last aria says: "Jesus, my King, fulfill my hopes that promise me heavenly clarity. Tarry ye not!" The structure is the same as that of the previous cantata from 1720.

Lastly, Halte an am Glaubensstreit, which was written for Sunday Reminiscere, the second Sunday in Lent. In some parts of Germany no music was performed during Lent. That was the case in Leipzig, which explains why Bach did not compose any cantata for this day. The Gospel was taken from Matthew 15, which tells about a cry for help from a Canaanite woman. At first, Jesus refuses to help her, as he has come to save the sheep of Israel. When she refuses to take no for an answer, he gives in. This situation is used metaphorically in the first aria: "My Jesus, observe my misery. I cry: 'You scorn my lamentations, my sighs were in vain. Where should I, Ah! ask for help, when I cannot have it?'" The message of the cantata is in the closing aria: "Stagger not, oppressed soul; Jesus does not always say 'no'. (...) If your entreaties appear not to be regarded, yield not, until his heart compassionately breaks. Believe it, he will be kind." This cantata is another one with an unusual structure. It opens with an arioso, which is followed by an aria, whose dacapo follows after a recitative. Then follow a recitative and two chorales embracing an aria. Notable is that, except in the opening arioso, the violins play in unison.

Any recording of cantatas by Graupner deserves a wholehearted welcome, especially if it includes items that have not been recorded before, as is the case here. Michael Hix's liner-notes show that this is very much a labour of love. That makes it all the more unfortunate that the musical result is not very convincing. First, I don't like Hix's voice very much, but that is a matter of taste. Problem is that his low register is not very strong, and as a result the lowest notes are too weak. His singing is also marred by an incessant wobble, which is not very wide, but clearly noticeable and not pleasant to hear. Then his treatment of the recitatives is disappointing, as they are too strict in time. More rhythmic freedom is required here. His German pronunciation is acceptable, but not more than that. It is certainly not idiomatic. As far as the instrumental parts are concerned, the dynamic contrasts are too narrow; there should have been a more marked contrast between good and bad notes.

Lastly, two technical issues.Within cantatas there is too much space between the various sections, which is rather unnatural. As I already noted, the booklet has very little to offer. Fortunately the texts are included, with translations, but their printing - and that of the booklet as a whole - leaves something to be desired.

No matter how happy I am with any recording of Graupner's music, this disc is not what I had hoped for.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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