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Johann Gottlieb Graun: "Concertos"

Ilja Korola, Daniel Sepecb, violin; Vittorio Ghielmic, viola da gamba
Wiener Akademie
Dir.: Martin Haselböck

Rec: November 18 - 20, 2002, Vienna, Hofburg (Hofburgkapelle)
CPO - 999 887-2 (68'38")

Concerto for viola da gamba, strings and bc in Ac; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in d minora; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in Ab; Sinfonia Grosso in D

Johann Gottlieb Graun (1702-1771) 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. Graun 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. Graun composed many concertos, mostly for violin, which were to be played by himself and reflect his own skills as a violin virtuoso. Burney reports that he was greatly admired as a composer who combined pleasant melodies with counterpoint and was generally considered "one of the greatest violinists of his day". The two violin concertos recorded here are both good examples of Graun's qualities as a violinist. In the Concerto in d minor it is especially the last movement which contains a virtuosic violin part, characterised by polyphony. In the Concerto in A both fast movements have brilliant solo parts for the violin. The solo passages in the last movement show a strong connection to the capricci which Pietro Antonio Locatelli added to his violin concertos, which were published as L'Arte del Violino. Perhaps they can even be considered a kind of tribute to Locatelli, who was present when Graun played at the Prussian court in Berlin.

Solo concertos were usually written for specific musicians, exploiting their particular qualities. One member of the court orchestra was Ludwig Christian Hesse, according to Gerber's Lexikon der Tonkünstler "one of Europe's premier gambists" because of his "proficiency, neatness, and fire of his execution". This explains why Graun composed no less than five concertos for viola da gamba, which belong to the most difficult compositions for the instrument. The fast movements contain cadenzas - in particular the one in the first movement is pretty long. The booklet doesn't give any information as to whether these are written out by Graun or improvised by the soloist.

The Sinfonia Grosso which opens the programme is a rather late work, dating from 1768, and is written for strings with 2 transverse flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trumpets and timpani. The first movement begins with a fanfare-like motif which is to return later. The middle movement in which the trumpets and timpani are keeping silent, is leaning towards the style of the Empfindsamkeit, as are the slow movements of the solo concertos which display great expressiveness. The fast movements refer to the Mannheim style, containing strong dynamic contrasts.

Considering the quality of these compositions it is a shame Johann Gottlieb Graun is overshadowed by his younger brother Carl Heinrich. That was already the case in his own time, probably first and fortemost because he didn't compose any operas which the audiences in those days were mainly interested in. This recording is most welcome as it pays tribute to Johann Gottlieb Graun as a composer of fine music and gives some idea about his own brilliance as a performer. The Viola da gamba Concerto is a vivid illustration of the praise the gambist Hesse received from his contemporaries.
The soloists on this recording give brilliant performances and play their parts with much imagination and boldness, but also with great sensitivity, in particular in the slow movements. The way Vittorio Ghielmi deals with his capricious solo part is most admirable. The orchestra is in excellent form throughout, and the wind players are impressive in the opening Sinfonia. This recording offers a musical adventure not to be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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