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Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703 - 1771): "Torna vincitor - Cantatas & Viola da Gamba Concerto"

Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Cristiano Contadin, viola da gamba
Opera Prima
Dir: Cristiano Contadin

rec: Jan 29 - 31, 2019, Castelfranco Veneto (TV), Villa Bolasco
CPO - 555 284-2 (© 2020) (78'26")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Già la sera; O Dio, Fileno; Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in a minor (GraunWV A,XIII,14)

Federico Guglielmi, Elisa Imbalzano, Giacomo Catana, Gianpiero Zanocco, Mauro Spinazzè, violin; Gianni Maraldi, viola; Federico Toffano, cello; Mauro Zavagno, double bass; Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord

Johann Gottlieb Graun was one of three brothers, who all made a career in music. The eldest, August Friedrich, became choirmaster and teacher at the cathedral school in Merseburg. Both Johann Gottlieb and his younger brother Carl Heinrich attended the Kreuzschule in Dresden and later studied at Leipzig University. It isn't the only similarity between them. In many cases it is difficult to tell their compositions apart, as most manuscripts are only signed 'Graun', without any specification.

Johann Gottlieb received lessons on the violin from the then most prominent violinist in Germany, Johann Georg Pisendel. He also travelled to Italy, where he became acquainted with Giuseppe Tartini. Back home he was appointed concertmaster of the orchestra of the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, while Carl Heinrich got the position of Kapellmeister. Johann Gottlieb held his position until his death. In the court orchestra, which moved to Berlin when Frederick became King of Prussia, he introduced the orchestral discipline he had experienced when he studied with Pisendel in Dresden. As a result the orchestra was, according to Charles Burney, "the most excellent in Europe". Graun was also active as a violin teacher; among his pupils are Franz Benda - from 1733 on also a member of Frederick's orchestra - and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

The largest part of his oeuvre consists of instrumental music, whereas his brother concentrated on vocal music, and became particularly famous for his operas. However, both also made forays into each other's realm: Carl Heinrich wrote instrumental music, and Johann Gottlieb vocal music, as the disc under review here shows. Considering his Italian leanings, it is quite remarkable that the viola da gamba takes a quite prominent place in his oeuvre, as this instrument had become completely out of fashion in Italy. According to Michael O'Loghlin, his oeuvre includes 27 pieces with parts for this instrument (among them ten concertos in the Italian three-movement form - New Grove mentions only five), which he seems not to have played himself. However, he must have had a thorough knowledge of the features of the instrument and its possibilities and limitations. And that brings us to the man who was undoubtedly responsible for this, and who also was the major source of inspiration for Graun to pay so much attention to the viola da gamba.

That man was Ludwig Christian Hesse (1716 - 1772). He was from a musical family, his father being a gambist himself and his mother being a professional singer. He was taught at first by his father, and from 1738 to 1741 he was a member of the chapel of the court in Darmstadt. He moved to Berlin and entered the royal chapel of Frederick the Great. In 1761 he became a member of the private chapel of Frederick William II. In 1771 he returned to Darmstadt, where he died the next year.

Most of the music written for the viola da gamba in Berlin was obviously written for Hesse. Among them are the sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, his colleague in the Berlin chapel, and Graun's solo concertos. The Concerto in a minor opens with an allegro moderato, whose feature is a dialogue between agitated ritornellos and a more lyrical solo part. The slow movement is marked adagio in one of the sources, but arioso in another, and the latter is a good description of its character. The viola da gamba and the strings share the same thematic material.

The two cantatas are mentioned in New Grove as being scored for soprano, strings and basso continuo. That looks pretty conventional, but these pieces are anything but conventional, due to the obbligato parts for the viola da gamba. Graun follows here the model of the Italian cantata, but obbligato instrumental parts were rare in cantatas by Italian composers. Again, it was Hesse, who must have inspired Graun to give his instrument such a prominent role in these pieces.

O Dio, Fileno comprises two pairs of recitative and aria. However, the recitatives are different. The first is very short - here just one minute - and unaccompanied. The second is a recitativo accompagnato of a very dramatic character. Dramatic is also the second section of the opening aria, a technically brilliant piece, which, due to its length (here over 14 minutes) and character, is very similar to opera arias of the time. The arias open with a ritornello for the strings, and then first the viola da gamba enters, playing an episode which could be part of a solo concerto. In the course of the arias, the viola da gamba gets several opportunities to shine. The soprano part is demanding, both because of its often dramatic character and its technical requirements, for instance with regard to tessitura.

The same goes for the second cantata, even though Già la sera has a rather pastoral content, reflected by the music, which is more lyrical in comparison with the previous cantata. This piece comprises two arias, embracing a recitative which opens with a few bars unaccompanied and then turns to an accompagnato. The pastoral character of the first aria is emphasized by the strings playing with a mute. In the obbligato part, the polyphonic possibilities of the viola da gamba are explored. The dramatic element comes here in the B section of the first aria. Its opening ritornello is very short; only after a few bars the viola da gamba enters to play its first episode.

These pieces bear witness to Graun's ability to explore the characteristics of the viola da gamba. Michael O'Loghlin may well be right, suggesting that his writing for the viola da gamba was likely the result of a close collaboration with Hesse. It is interesting to quote an example from the liner-notes. "[Near] the beginning of the Adagio in O Dio, Fileno, there is a passage of descending parallel sixths. At the end of this sequence, Graun reverts to thirds, just at the point where continuing in sixths would have necessitated an awkward string crossing which even if negotiated well, would interrupt the flow". He also mentions that parallel thirds are very common in Graun's works, often including double trills; these require a virtuoso technique. It is notable that in recent times, the music of the Graun brothers receives increasing attention. It is to be hoped that Johann Gottlieb's music for the viola da gamba will be more frequently performed and recorded in the process.

Cristiano Contadin delivers outstanding and impressive performances of the viola da gamba parts, both in the Concerto in a minor and in the cantatas. He deserves praise for including two very fine cantatas, which are in no way inferior to the best of what was written in Italy. The combination of soprano and viola da gamba, now and then involved in a direct dialogue, is interesting and a token of Graun's creativity. Amanda Forsythe is an experienced performer in the field of early music, including opera, and that shows. The dramatic features come off to full extent, and she convincingly explores the text and its affetti. From a stylistic point of view, there are some issues. First, she uses way too much vibrato: too frequently, and often too wide. In the opening aria of Già la sera, she strongly reduces it, and the result is so much better. Second, too often she sings the top notes at full power, which is a bad habit of most opera singers in baroque repertoire, and which is not justified by the aesthetic ideals of the time. That said, I like her voice, and she deals well with the text. I also appreciate the way she sings the recitatives, and her dynamic differentiation between good and bad notes.

Despite my reservations, I recommend this disc, because of the originality of the repertoire and the brilliant viola da gamba parts. And this disc also shows that Johann Gottlieb was not inferior to his brother in the writing for the voice.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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