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Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1703/04 - 1759): "Große Passion" (Kommt her und schaut, Graun WV B:VII,5)

Veronika Winter, soprano; Hilke Andersen, mezzosoprano; Markus Schäfer, tenor; Ekkehard Abele, bass
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Sept 18 - 19, 2008, Knechtsteden, Klosterbasilika
CPO - 777 452-2 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (2.02'28")

Although Carl Heinrich Graun was first and foremost active as a composer of operas, he became most famous for his religious music. In particular his Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu was very popular, even long after his death. It 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.

Graun was born in Wahrenbrück in the south of the present state of Brandenburg, and became an alumnus of the Kreuzschule in Dresden, where he was trained as a choirboy. After his voice broke he studied keyboard and composition, but he also developed his singing voice, which allowed him to sing as a tenor in the court chapel of the Duke August Wilhelm of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel from 1725 on. Some years later he became vice-Kapellmeister at Brunswick, due to his development as a composer. When Prince Friedrich of Prussia married Princess Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick Graun composed the opera Lo specchio della fedeltà, which apparently pleased the Prince in such a way that in 1741 the then King Friedrich II appointed Graun as Kapellmeister of his court. He became the central figure in what is known as the 'Berlin school', which included Graun's elder brother Johann Gottlieb and composers like Kirnberger, Quantz, Benda and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. He also got the task the set up an opera house in Berlin.

The compositions which Graun has written during his time in Brunswick are largely ignored. Two of them are Passions: Kommet her und schaut and Ein Lämmlein geht. The latter dates from 1733, the former - which is recorded here - was probably written around 1729. Its nickname Große Passion (Great Passion) stems from its length: 66 numbers in total. The second Passion is considerably shorter, and also differs in that the dacapo arias are its central elements.

This work is a mixture of traditional and modern elements. It contains passages from the Gospels, like in the oratorio Passion. Although the tenor doesn't take the role of an Evangelist he quotes passages from the Gospels in his recitatives. It is not the whole Passion story as told in the Gospels, but rather a number of key moments.
There is no role for Jesus either. The bass quotes passages from the Bible, though, often the words of Jesus, like "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem" (Luke 18,31). He also acts as vox Dei, for instance when he quotes Jesaiah 53,11: "My servant, the righteous one, will set much aright, for he bears your sins".
The choir also sings a dictum: "Christ once went into sanctification with his own blood and found an eternal redemption" (Hebr 9,12).
Lastly several recitatives and arias contain biblical references, mostly in the first quarter of the oratorio. In the lyrics in the booklet numbers in brackets refer to a list of biblical quotations and references at the last pages.

The number of chorales to be sung by the choir is limited, but there are quotations of chorales in the arias. An example is the aria for tenor 'Bis in den Tod' in which the oboes quote 'Jesu, meines Lebens Leben'. In the duet 'Das ist mein Leib' the bass paraphrases Jesus' words regarding the ordinance of the Last Supper, while the soprano sings a stanza from the chorale 'Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele'.

The largest part of the oratorio consists of recitatives, accompagnati, ariosi and arias as well as two duets and a quartet. Here we find commentary on the events of the Passion as well as meditations about its meaning. The text of accompagnato 'Ach schattenreiche Vesperstunde' does sound very familiar to those who know Bach's St Matthew Passion: "Now comes the dove, and in its mouth it has this branch of peace with these glad tidings: it is accomplished".

The instrumental scoring is for three transverse flutes, three oboes, three bassoons, two horns, strings and bc. Several arias contain obbligato parts for melody instruments. There are obbligato parts for the violin in 'Bedrängte Seele, laß dein Weinen' and for the transverse flute in the accompagnato 'Ach! wie erbärmlich sieht mein Heiland aus'. In the aria 'Dürres Kreuz, an deinem Stamme' we even hear the three bassoons in an obbligato role, and the first aria of the second part - although the parts are not explicitly mentioned - contains an obbligato part for the double bass.

With Graun's Große Passion Hermann Max has dug up another masterpiece which should be part of the standard repertoire for Passiontide. In its content and character it is somewhere in the middle between the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach and the various settings of the Brockes-Passion. In my view it is closer to the heart of the Passion as reported in the Gospels than the Brockes-Passion with its one-sided emphasis on the drama, or than Graun's own Der Tod Jesu.

With his soloists and ensembles Hermann Max delivers a gripping performance. The key part is that of the tenor, and Max could hardly have made a better choice than Markus Schäfer. His crisp and flexible voice and his exemplary diction and articulation make him the ideal interpreter of the recitatives in which the story of the Passion is told. In his arias he shows that he is capable of delivering lyricism as well.
Veronika Winter often appears in recordings by Hermann Max, since she is also a member of the Rheinische Kantorei. I wasn't totally satisfied with her performance in Hermann Max's recent recording of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, but here she gives it all she's got. She sings with panachee and explores the expression of her arias to the full.
Hilke Andersen's role is a little more modest; she gives very fine interpretations of her recitatives and arias.
Ekkehard Abele is also a regular with Hermann Max, and he shows again that he is a highly reliable performer, especially doing well in the recitatives.

The qualities of the Rheinische Kantorei come once again to the fore, in particular its remarkable transparency and the optimal clarity in the delivery of the text. The members of Das Kleine Konzert show to be fully aware that instrumentalists should understand the text and its meaning too. The obbligato parts are given immaculate performances.

The booklet contains liner notes which could have gone into a little more detail about the composition itself. This is CPO, so we may expect some errors. Here it is that the chorale, which according to the booklet is the first track of the second disc, is in fact the last of the first. As a result the numbering of the tracks in the booklet doesn't match that of the disc. This is a major annoyance if you look for a specific aria.

This is a blot on a production which I consider as one of the most important releases of Passion music of recent years.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Rheinische Kantorei

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