musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Christoph GRAUPNER (1683 - 1760): "Das Leiden Jesu - Passion Cantatas I"

Solistenensemble Ex Tempore; Barockorchester Mannheimer Hofkapelle
Dir: Florian Heyerick

rec: Feb 25 - 28, 2016, Darmstadt, Pauluskirche
CPO - 555 071-2 (© 2017) (68'41")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christus, der uns selig macht (GWV 1121/41); Erzittre, toll und freche Welt (GWV 1120/41); Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit (GWV 1125/41)

[ET] Doerthe-Maria Sandmann, Simone Schwark, soprano; Marnix De Cat, alto; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Jan Kobow, Yves Vanhandenhoven, tenor; Dominik Wörner, Robbert Muuse, bass
[MH] Susanne Kohnen, Martin Letz, oboe; Ernst Schlader, Giulia Zannin, Jänis Tretjuks, chalumeau; Rainer Johannsen, bassoon; Swantje Hoffmann, violin; Alexandra Wiedner, Silke Volk, Manu Huyssen, Emanuele Breda, violin, viola; Johannes Berger, cello; Kit Scotney, violone; Geneviève Soly, organ

Only recently I reviewed a set of two discs with cantatas for Epiphany from the pen of Christoph Graupner. The disc to be reviewed here testifies to the growing interest in the oeuvre of this contemporary of Bach and Telemann, who has remained under the radar for too long. Siegbert Rampe has been one of the promoters of his oeuvre; in the first five years of the previous decade he recorded three discs with instrumental works. It has taken some time until his vocal works also came into the picture. In the last ten years or so several discs with his cantatas have been released. The present disc is the first in a series which include a cycle of ten cantatas from 1741, which were intended for the period of Lent.

That in itself is remarkable. In the booklet, Beate Sorg points out that in some parts of Germany this period was known as tempus clausum, as no music was performed, reflecting the character of this time of the year as one of repentance. This was a relic of the old Roman Catholic canon law. "The Lutheran rules, on the other hand, stated that a Passion Devotion should be held on every Sunday in Lent between Estomihi (which is before Ash Wednesday) and Palm Sunday. Duke Ernest the Pious had introduced a rule in Gotha in 1669 which specified that a cantata should be performed on each of these occasions. It is likely that Graupner's predecessor Wolfgang Carl Briegel brought this innovation with him, when in 1670 he moved from Gotha to Darmstadt to take up his position as court Kapellmeister there (...)".

The cantatas which are the subject of this project, are settings of texts, written by the theologian and poet Johann Conrad Lichtenberg (1689-1751), who was pastor in Darmstadt from 1745 until his death. He was also related to Graupner: in 1717 he married the younger sister of Graupner's wife. Graupner had a strong preference for Lichtenberg's librettos: about 1,400 cantatas by Graupner have come down to us, and no fewer than 1,190 are on texts by Lichtenberg. The latter wrote three cantata cycles for Passiontide for the court in Darmstadt. The first is from 1718, and is based on the seven penitential psalms, which traditionally were sung during Lent. The last dates from 1743 and is about Jesus' Last Words from the Cross. The cycle of 1741 is called Betrachtungen über die Hauptumstände des großen Versöhnungsleidens unseres Erlösers (Reflections on the Circumstances Surrounding the Propitiatory Passion of Our Saviour). The connection between the cantatas is such, that Beate Sorg makes a comparison with Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which is also a compilation of cantatas. There is an important difference, though: whereas in the latter work the narrative of the events around Jesus's birth is the core of the cycle, the story of Jesus's Passion as told in the Gospels as such is ignored by Lichtenberg. The word 'reflections' in the title already suggest, that his libretto is closer to the genre of the Passion Oratorio, such as Brockes's Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterde und sterbende Jesus, than to Bach's oratorio Passions.

The cantatas from this cycle are a bit different from other cantatas by Graupner and Lichtenberg in the number of movements. They usually comprise seven movements, but in this cycle their number is sometimes extended. The second of the cantatas included here has seven movements, but the first has eleven and the third eight. In their form they are not fundamentally different from the cantatas by other composers, such as Bach and Telemann (who sometimes used the same libretti): every cantata is a sequence of choruses, chorales, recitatives and arias; sometimes they also include a duet. However, if we compare them with the much better-known cantatas by Bach there are some notable differences. Firstly, whereas many of Bach's cantatas open with an extended chorus of a polyphonic character, Graupner often prefers a chorale, mostly in the form of a chorale arrangement. In such pieces the chorale melody is sung by the choir in homophony, whereas the instruments deliver the polyphony. The cantatas also end with such a chorale arrangement, whereas Bach usually confines himself to a rather simple chorale setting. In Bach's cantatas we find many secco recitatives; Graupner seems to prefer the accompanied recitative. In the three cantatas on this disc we find only two unaccompanied recitatives; in contrast, there are eight movements, called accompagnato. This offers the opportunity to use the instruments for the sake of expression.

This brings us to another notable feature of Graupner's cantatas - and of his entire oeuvre, for that matter. He often makes use of less common instruments or combinations of instruments. Graupner was a strong advocate of the chalumeau, a relatively rare instrument, which enjoyed some popularity in the first half of the 18th century, but then disappeared almost completely. In comparison Telemann used it seldom, and in Bach's oeuvre we find no parts for the chalumeau at all. In two of the cantatas on this disc Graupner included parts for one or several chalumeaus, which are also given obbligato parts.

It is a bit odd - but probably the result of the length of the various cantatas - that the first volume of this recording project opens with the second cantata from the cycle rather than the first. Erzittre, toll und freche Welt is a cantata for Sunday Invocavit. All the cantatas have a title which refers to their place in the cycle: this cantata is called Das innerliche Leiden Jesu im Garten (The inner passion of Jesus in the garden). It is scored for four voices, oboe, bassoon, two solo violins, two ripieno violins, viola and bc. It opens with an accompagnato for tenor; the opening word: "zittre" (tremble) is eloquently illustrated by repeated chords in the strings. It is followed by an arioso for bass and a secco recitative for soprano. Next follows a dictum - a literal quotation from the Bible - for the tutti; the text is taken from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians (ch 5, vs 21). The ensuing duet for soprano and alto opens with the phrase: "Jesus feels the flames of hell", which is again illustrated by repeated chords of the strings. In the chorale 'Tritt her und schau mit Fleiße', the viola adds an ornament on the word "Schmerzen" (pain). The cantata goes on with an aria for bass and an accompagnato for soprano, and closes with another chorale. The two chorales are stanzas from the hymn O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben (Paul Gerhardt, 1647).

The second cantata is Christus, der uns selig macht, for Sunday Reminiscere. It is called Das äußerliche Leiden des Heilands im Garten (The physical passion of the Saviour in the garden). It is scored for four voices, chalumeau, two oboes, strings and bc. The chalumeau and oboes have obbligato parts in the opening chorus. This is different from what is common practice in Graupner's cantatas: the chorale melody is sung unaltered by the upper voice; here not only the instruments, but also the other vocal parts deliver the polyphony. It is followed by an accompagnato and an aria for bass; in the accompagnato the reference to the "flames of God's stern anger" is illustrated by the strings. In the aria the oboe has an obbligato part. Next follows a highly dramatic accompagnato for the soprano, which is the response of the believer to what happens in the garden: "A bold and murderous generation approaches you with torches, sword and staff, and it is happy to have you captured like a murderer." The ensuing soprano aria - "The lamb, my Saviour, lies captive, he is intended for death" - is dominated by Seufzer. After an accompagnato for tenor the cantata closes with the chorale 'Du, ach du hast ausgestanden', the second stanza from the hymn Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (Ernst C. Homburg, 1659).

The third and last cantata, Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit is for Palm Sunday and has the title Das Leiden Jesu in der schmerzlichen Geißelung (The passion of Jesus in painful flogging). It is scored for four voices, transverse flute or oboe, three chalumeaux of different pitch, bassoon, strings and bc. It opens with a polyphonic dictum; the text is from the prophet Isaiah (ch 53, vs 4) as is the next dictum (ch 53, vs 5) which follows a recitative for tenor. The three chalumeaux have obbligato parts in the soprano aria. Next follow an accompagnato and an aria for bass; in the latter the oboe and the bassoon have obbligato parts. An accompagnato for tenor follows, and the cantata closes with the fourth stanza from the hymn 'Seht, welch ein Mensch ist das' (Benjamin Schmolck, 1672-1737); it is sung on the melody of O Gott, du frommer Gott.

The Belgian conductor Florian Heyerick is one of the main advocates of Graupner; in the past he recorded a number of cantatas for Christmastide. He has a very good feeling for the character of Graupner's music, which in various ways is so different from what was written by other composers. That results here in performances which are pretty much ideal. The soloists are all outstanding; every recitative and aria is utterly convincing, and the expressive features of every piece are fully explored. The vocal ensemble comprises eight singers; in the recording of Epiphany cantatas to which I already referred, the number of singers is just four. I don't know - and it probably is not known - how many singers Graupner had at his disposal. However, four singers, sometimes with four additional ripienists, may well have been common practice in many places in Germany at the time. Obviously it is important that the voices blend perfectly, and that is exactly the case here. I also need to mention the instrumentalists, who considerably contribute to the quality of these performances.

This is the first volume of a highly important and musically captivating project. I am looking forward to the next instalments.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Ex Tempore
Mannheimer Hofkapelle

CD Reviews