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Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1703/04 - 1759): "Te Deum - Motets"

Monika Mauch, sopranoa; Elisabeth von Magnus, mezzosopranob; Bernhard Gärtner, tenorc; Klaus Mertens, bassd; Basler Madrigalisten; L'arpa festante
Dir: Fritz Näf

rec: June 2005, Basle, Martinskirche
CPO - 777 158-2 (© 2006) (59'17")

Herr, ich habe lieb die Stätte deines Hauses, motet for 4 voices and bc; Lasset uns freuen und fröhlich sein, motet for 4 voices and bc; Machet die Tore weit, motet for 8 voices in 2 choirs and bc; Te Deum for solo voices, choir and orchestraabcd

Carl Heinrich Graun was a key figure in the musical life of Berlin during the reign of Frederick II. He was Kapellmeister and mostly responsible for the opera Frederick had founded in Berlin. He composed a number of operas, which show a strong influence of the Italian style of his time. His operas didn't find universal approval, though. The English music historian Charles Burney, for instance, judged them rather negatively. But others did appreciate them highly. Nowadays they are hardly performed, and Graun is much better-known for his Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu, which was based on a text of the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler, another prominent figure in Berlin. He composed other religious works, which are far less known. This disc brings compositions from different stages in Graun's career.

In the first half of the 18th century the motet wasn't a genre many composers were interested in. And when they did compose motets, these were mostly intended for special occasions, like funerals or commemoration services. This disc presents three motets which date from Graun's time in Dresden, when he was a singer in the Kreuzchor, for which these motets are composed. They are written in the style which was still in vogue at the time: polyphony dominates, and all of them contain fugal sections. Interesting is Machet die Tore weit, which is written for double choir. The text comes from Psalm 24, which has elements of a dialogue: "Who is the King of Glory? - He is the Lord, strong and mighty in battle". The dialogue doesn't take place between the two choirs, as one would perhaps expect, but between soli and tutti. Both this motet and Herr, ich habe lieb contain textual parallellisms, and Graun uses the same music for these passages.

The largest work on this disc, the Te Deum, dates from a much later period in Graun's life. In the 17th and 18th centuries this text - probably dating from the 4th century - was set to music by many composers, mostly for state occasions, in particular celebrations of military victories. Graun's setting is no exception: it was commissioned either by Frederick II or by his younger sister Anna Amalia. In 1757 Prussian troops were close to a military breakthrough in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), and on 6 May the Prussian troops defeated the Austrians. On 15 May the military victory was celebrated in St Peter's Church in Berlin with Graun's Te Deum. There is no pomp and circumstance in this work, partly because the score doesn't contain parts for trumpets and timpani. There could be two reasons for that. On the one hand the art of playing the clarino trumpets was deteriorating around the middle of the 18th century, and it is no coincidence that Mozart, in his arrangement of Handel's Messiah, replaced the trumpets with horns. But although the score has parts for two horns they don't play a very prominent role. Therefore it is more likely that Graun deliberately chose to set the text in a more intimate way than usual. The character of the work as a whole also points in that direction.

Although this work was written only two years later than the oratorio Der Tod Jesu, the arias are strongly different. There are no da capo arias in the style of the opera seria here. There are repeats of (parts of) arias, but in a different way than in Der Tod Jesu. And the arias in the Te Deum are also considerably shorter, and - with the exception of the last aria, 'Dignare, Domine' - don't contain cadenzas.

This work is a mixture of traditional and new elements. The traditional elements are the fugal passages in the choral sections. The chorus which closes the Te Deum is a double fugue on the text "In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum" (O Lord, in Thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded).

Several choruses contain short solo sections. In the programme notes Lukas Näf states that these could be sung by members of the choir. Here they are performed by the soloists, and that is just as well. The motet 'Machet die Tore weit' also contains solo sections, and those are sung by members of the Basler Madrigalisten, but I am not very impressed by their contributions. That is also true for the choir as a whole. There is a lack of clarity, mainly due to the use of vibrato - not very much, but just enough to make the motets and the choral sections of the Te Deum less transparent than they should be. There is also a lack of dynamic differentiation, which is even more striking considering the very agile and contrasting style of playing of the orchestra.

The soloists are generally singing very well. Monika Mauch has a beautiful and clear voice, and she sings the previously mentioned aria 'Dignare, Domine' quite superbly. In her first aria, 'Tu, ad liberandum', though, the text is not very well audable. Bernhard Gärtner impresses with his agile and flexible voice, used to great effect in the aria 'Te per orbem'. Klaus Mertens only has one short aria, which he sings well, supported by the splendid basso continuo group, with Rien Voskuilen as an imaginative player at the organ. Elisabeth von Magnus has never really impressed me, and that is not different here. She is merely reliable in her only contribution, a duet with the tenor.

To sum up: these performances are probably not the best possible, but as there are no better recordings (if any) of both the Te Deum and the motets, I recommend this disc. The Te Deum is a very attractive and strong composition, which fully deserves to be performed and recorded. And I certainly would like to hear more of Graun's motets.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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