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Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704 - 1759) / Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681 - 1767) / Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt

Gesine Adler, soprano; Klaudia Zeiner, contralto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass
Concerto Vocale; Sächsisches Barockorchester Leipzig
Dir: Gotthold Schwarz

rec: Sept 7 - 9, 2018, Thalbürgel (D), Klosterkirche
CPO - 555 270-2 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.55'58")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Graun, Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld

Ulrike Wolf, Johanna Baumgärtel, recorder, transverse flute; Markus Müller, Anna-Maria Schmidt, oboe, oboe d'amore; Nelly Sturm, Fabian Kunkel, bassoon; Katharina Arendt, Eva Salonen, Uwe Ulbrich, Saskia Klapper, Dimitri Rutter, Helga Schmidtmayer, violin; Gundula Rauterberg, Cosima Taubert, viola; Katharina Litschig, cello; Tilman Schmidt, double bass; Mechthild Winter, organ

Carl Heinrich Graun was one of Germany's main composers in the field of vocal music from the generation of the Bach sons. For most of his career he was in the service of Frederick the Great, and in this capacity his main activity was the composition of operas. However, he also composed some sacred music, including the Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu, which was first performed on Good Friday in 1755, and was repeated the next year. This became a tradition, which lasted until 1884. At the end of the 19th century it fell victim to the increasing popularity of the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Der Tod Jesu was not his first Passion oratorio. In 1729 he had written Kommt her und schaut. At that time Graun was vice-Kapellmeister at the court of Duke August Wilhelm of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, where he first was engaged as a tenor. The oratorio was nicknamed Große Passion (Great Passion), due to its length: 66 numbers in total. If there is a Great Passion, there must be a Little Passion too. That is the work which is the core of the Passion pasticcio that is the subject of the production under review here. It seems not entirely clear when this Passion, entitled Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld, was written. Andreas Glöckner, in his liner-notes, states that it dates from around 1730. He mentions that a copy of this work was once part of the library of the St Thomas School in Leipzig, but is now lost. However, the estate of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach also included a copy. This suggests that he has performed it - or at least planned to perform it - in Hamburg. The interesting thing is that in this copy, Graun's oratorio has been extended by material from the pen of Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach. There are indications that this work has been performed at Good Friday 1750 in Leipzig. Whether that was under Bach's direction is hard to say, considering the state of his health at the time (he would die only four months later). This may not even have been the first performance of this Passion oratorio.

Graun's work was adapted in that it was divided into two parts. This way it would fit the Leipzig practice of performing the two parts of a cantata or oratorio before and after the sermon. The first part opens with two pieces from Telemann's cantata Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt (TWV 1,1585), written for Palm Sunday: the opening chorus and the ensuing chorale Christus, der uns selig macht. They replace the chorale that opens Graun's oratorio, and are the only adaptations/additions in the first part. The second part is considerably longer, and this begins with the chorus which opens Bach's cantata Herr Jesu Christ, wahr'r Mensch und Gott (BWV 127), transposed from F major to E flat major, and adapted in several ways. This is followed by an arioso for bass, 'So heb ich denn mein Auge sehnlich auf', which has been included in new editions of the Schmieder catalogue (BWV 1166), as it is attributed to Bach on stylistic grounds. Also included are six stanzas of the chorale Christus, der uns selig macht, which connect this second part to the opening of the work and lend it also a more liturgical character than Graun's original oratorio. It seems possibly that these settings also go back to Bach. Lastly, towards the end of this second part the motet Der Gerechte kommt um is inserted. It is Bach's arrangement of the motet Tristis est anima mea by Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

A pasticcio was a common phenomenon in the world of opera. Handel, for instance, performed such pasticcios in London, in which he added arias from operas by colleagues to the music of his own pen. In field of sacred music, this practice seems to have been far less common. New Grove, for instance, defines it as "[an] opera made up of various pieces from different composers or sources and adapted to a new or existing libretto." However, when Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach started his work as Musikdirektor in Hamburg, he had hardly any material to fall back on, and regularly made use of (parts of) cantatas by colleagues, to which he then added material of his own (or his father). In this case, the mixture of music by different composers inevitably results in stylistic differences, as is the case here. The motet Der Gerechte kommt um is the most drastic example, as this is an adaptation of an even older work than Bach's cantata 127. Moreover, Graun was a genuine opera composer, and many of the arias are unashamedly operatic: with other texts they could have found a place in a opera without any problem. And as is often the case with sacred music in the galant idiom, sometimes one can have the feeling that text and music don't quite match. That is the case here in the aria 'Harte Marter, schwere Plagen', whose A-part is written in an almost uplifting rhythm, which seems at odds with the text: "Cruel trials and tribulations which my Jesus must bear, oh, how sweet you are to me". The latter phrase is probably the reason Graun opted for this rhyhm. In contrast, the B-part includes heavy accents, inspired by the words "blows, lashes and rods" in the text.

This Passion pasticcio has been recorded before under the direction of Hermann Max. That was in 1990; this new recording is based on an edition by Andreas Glöckner and Peter Wollny from 1997. In what way that is different from the edition Max used is impossible for me to check. Even so, a new recording is certainly welcome. Overall, this performance does justice to this oratorio, although there are several issues which need to be noticed. The booklet does not specify the members of the Concerto Vocale. Its sound suggests that it is pretty large. As a result the choruses are not very transparent and a bit too heavy-handed. The same goes for the chorales, where I would have liked a more flexible approach. The soloists use a bit too much vibrato, except Tobias Hunger, who is the most convincing from a stylistic point of view. He is responsible for the highlight of this work, the aria 'Arme Seel, zerschlagnes Herz', which he sings with great sensitivity. Klaudia Zeiner sings 'Hier steht der Grund von meinem Glauben' with the appropriate firmness: "Here stands the reason for my faith, nothing can the world afflict on me: I am strengthened by the power from high". Power is also a feature of Tobias Berndt's voice, which fits the aria 'Nun darf ich mich nicht mehr entsetzen'. Gesina Adler delivers a fine performance of the joyous aria 'Zerbrich nur, Macht und Pracht der Erden'. The orchestra is first class, and there are some nice obbligato parts, such as the two bassoons in (Bach's?) recitative 'So heb ich denn mein Auge sehnlich auf'.

This is certainly not the definitive recording of this work, as it has some serious shortcomings. However, it deserves a whole-hearted welcome, as this Passion pasticcio is a fine work, and Max's recording may not be available anymore.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Concerto Vocale
Sächsisches Baroockorchester Leipzig

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