musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Carl Heinrich & Johann Gottlieb GRAUN: Cantatas & Opera arias

[I] Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704 - 1759): "Opera Arias"
Julia Lezhneva, soprano
Concerto Köln
Dir: Mikhail Antonenko
rec: Sept 2016, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Decca - 483 1518 (© 2017) (65'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704-1759): Armida (GraunWV B,I,23), dramma per musica, 1751 (A tanti pianti miei; La gloria t'invita); Britannico (GraunWV B,I,24), tragedia per musica, 1751 (Mi paventi il figlio indegno); Coriolano (GraunWV B,I,20), tragedia per musica, 1749 (Senza di te, mio bene); Ifigenia in Aulide (GraunWV B,I,18), dramma per musica, 1748 (Sforzerò l'avverso mare); Il Mitridate (GraunWV B,I,22), tragedia per musica, 1751 (Piangete, o mesti lumi); L'Orfeo (GraunWV B,I,25), tragedia per musica, 1752 (D'ogni aura al mormorar; Il mar s'inalza e freme; Sento una pena); Rodelinda, regina de' Langobardi (GraunWV B,I,6), dramma per musica, 1741 (sinfonia); Silla (GraunWV B,I,27), dramma per musica, 1753 (No, no, di Libia fra l'arene; Parmi ... ah no!)

[II] Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704-1759): "Apollo e Dafne"
Hannah Morrison, soprano
rec: Jan 2019, Gießen (D), Petruskirche
Accent - ACC 24362 (© 2019) (68'03")
Liner-notes: E/DF; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Heinrich GRAUN: Cinna (GraunWV B,I,16), dramma per musica, 1748) (sinfonia); Lavinia a Turno (GraunWV B,III,23), cantata; Carl Heinrich GRAUN or Johann Gottlieb GRAUN (1703-1771): Apollo amante di Dafne (GraunWV C,III,67), cantata; Disperata Porcia (GraunWV B,III,29), cantata

Martin Jopp, Marie Verweyen, Helmut Winkel, Jörn-Sebastian Kuhlmann, Adam Lord, Katka Ozaki, violin; Friederike Kremers, Ursula Plagge-Zimmermann, viola; Katie Stephens, cello; Christian Zincke, violone; Henrike Seitz, harpsichord


In recent years a number of discs have been released, which bear witness to the growing interest in the music written by composers connected to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Two of these composers were the Graun brothers, Johann Gottlieb and Carl Heinrich. As many of their works are signed with "di Graun" or "del Signor Graun", it is often not possible to discern the compositions of the two brothers with any amount of certainty. Johann Gottlieb was educated as a violinist, whereas Carl Heinrich was first and foremost active as a singer. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that most of the instrumental works are from the former's pen, and most of the vocal pieces were written by Carl Heinrich.

Overall, the instrumental works are much better represented on disc than the vocal compositions. Carl Heinrich has become best known for his Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu, and in recent years some other oratorios have been recorded. He composed a large number of operas; Montezuma is virtually the only work in this genre which has become part of the repertoire. From that angle, the release of a disc with arias from his other operas is of great importance.

This aria recording is very much a personal project of Julia Lezhneva. When preparing a concert, she stumbled across an aria from Graun's opera Britannico, 'Mi paventi il figlio indegno'. This is the only aria in the programme that has been recorded before, and has been placed at its end. "I was completely amazed by this fabulous aria. It is so beautiful and emotional that I felt myself trembling when I sang it. (...) Because of 'Mi paventi', I knew that other wonderful arias by this composer must exist." That's how the idea of making this recording was born.

Most of Graun's operatic output dates from his time in the service of Frederick the Great. George Loomis, in his liner-notes, states: "The situation might seem ideal for a court composer, but notwithstanding Graun's obvious mastery of Italian opera seria, Frederick was not easy to please. He himself sometimes supplied portions of the text or music of an opera and was always ready with criticism. The composer J.F. Reichardt wrote that Frederick limited Graun's artistic freedom, even requiring the removal of the best piece in an opera if it didn't please him, but the reliability of Reichardt's assertion is questionable." Christoph Henzel, in his article on the Graun brothers in New Grove, mentions that opinions on his operas were divided. In 1771, Charles Burney criticised them as "old-fashioned and unoriginal", but in 1773 a collection of Graun's arias was published as "the finest models", according to the preface. At the Berlin court, his operas were performed until the mid-1780s, although at that time they were stylistically out of fashion. Even when he composed his operas, he was more or less out of step with what happened elsewhere. Henzel points out that from the 1750s onward, Berlin developed its own style in opera.

However, in one respect Graun seems to have been quite modern, as Julia Lezhneva points out in the booklet. 'Mi paventi', mentioned above, "was written for one of the greatest female sopranos of the time, Giovanna Astrua. And I was excited to discover that this particular aria was often performed over the next hundred years, by such famous singers as Gertrud Mara, Sophie Löwe and Pauline Viardot! Unlike Handel or Porpora, where you can feel that castrati were still reigning supreme in opera and dominating the concert stage, it seems that Graun had a deep love of the natural female voice and tried to make women equal to the castrati, creating lots of roles for them with as much emotional and dramatic range as possible." Whether this was just a matter of personal preference or whether the increasing criticism of the Enlightenment with regard to the phenomenon of the castrato played any role in this matter, is probably impossible to establish.

The programme includes a wide variety of arias, from tender expressions of love (Coriolano, Senza di te) to rage arias (Ifigenia in Aulide, Sforzerò l'avverso mare). In a number of arias, Graun creates a strong contrast between the A and B sections, such as in 'A tanti pianti mei' (Armida). An impressive lamento is 'Piangete, o mesti lumi' from Il Mitridate: "Weep, o miserable eyes, and pay homage to my beloved shadow through your sadness". The soprano opens the proceedings, and in this aria the feelings of the protagonist are illustrated with long notes and sighing figures. In 'Il mar s'inalza e freme' (L'Orfeo), the text is eloquently illustrated in the music: "The sea rises and shudders, the shore moans again". In the rage arias the strings are joined by horns. Notable is the aria 'Parmi ... ah no!' from Silla, which opens in the way of an accompagnato; one expects a scena as in operas which were written later ­in the 18th century, but in the end it is still a 'conventional' dacapo aria.

Lezhneva states that Graun "definitely deserves his chance on the stage". It is hard to assess the quality of an opera as a dramatic concept on the basis of arias, but the quality of what is included here suggests that his operatic oeuvre is certainly worth being explored. This disc is not only important from a historical point of view, but also musically. One has to be grateful to Lezhneva and Concerto Köln for bringing this repertoire to the attention of lovers of 18th-century opera. Lezhneva performs these arias with great commitment; one just feels that this is a labour of love. Her admirers should not hesitate to add this disc to their collection. Over the years I have heard several recordings by Julia Lezhneva, and I was mostly positive, although not without reservations. That is not any different here, although I am less positive about her performances than on previous occasions. Right in the first aria I noted a way of singing trills which remind me of the singing of Cecilia Bartoli, and that is not something I am happy about. In the arias which are sung in a fast tempo, a kind of fast and nervous vibrato creeps in, and the voice gets some hard edges, which are not nice to listen to. Overall, I have enjoyed the more quiet and introverted pieces best. 'Piangete, o mesti lumi' from Il Mitridate is one of the highlights. One of the positive aspects of these performances are the stylish and never exaggerated ornamentation and cadenzas. Concerto Köln is an energetic and stylish partner.

On the second disc, the music for the stage is represented by just one piece, the overture to Cinna, which was first performed in 1748 in Berlin. It is in the common Italian form of three movements in the order fast - slow - fast. The main subject of this disc is the secular cantata, a part of Graun's output that is just as unknown as his operas. That is to say: if the cantatas are indeed from Carl Heinrich's pen.

The three cantatas also have their roots in Italy. Such pieces were first written in the mid-17th century, by the likes of Barbara Strozzi, Giacomo Carissimi and Alessandro Stradella. It was Alessandro Scarlatti who laid down its basic form and whose own output in this genre resulted in its huge popularity. Many composers contributed to the genre, and their cantatas belonged to the core repertoire performed at the Arcadian academies, which were founded across Italy in the early 18th century.

Two of the cantatas included here are by one of the Grauns; only in the case of Lavinia a Turno the authorship of Carl Heinrich is established. In their basic structure, they are similar. All of them consist of two pairs of recitative and aria. However, Disperata Porcia opens with a short instrumental introduction, whereas in Apollo amante di Dafne the soprano opens the proceedings. Two of the cantatas are based on stories from Greek mythology: Apollo amante di Dafne (from Ovid's Metamorphoses) and Lavinia a Turno (from Virgil's Aeneid). The third, Disperata Porcia, roots in Roman history: Porcia is the wife of Caesar's murderer, Brutus. Only in the case of Lavinia a Turno, the author of the libretto is known: Maria Antonia Walpurgis of Bavaria, from 1747 Elector of Saxony, and a composer herself.

Most of Carl Heinrich's cantatas are scored for tenor, and very likely written for his own voice. These three cantatas are for soprano, and Martin Mezger, in his liner-notes, assumes that they were intended for performance by castratos who participated in opera performances in Berlin after Frederick had become King of Prussia (in 1740). That could give us an indication about the time they were written. However, in the light of what Julia Lezhneva states with regard to Graun's apparent interest in the female voice, we probably can't take it for granted that these cantatas were indeed intended for castratos. In character these cantatas show strong similarity with opera. Disperata Porcia, for instance, ends with a true rage aria, and there are various accompanied recitatives, which offer the composer the opportunity to illustrate and emphasize particularly dramatic moments.

Apollo amante di Dafne focuses on the end of the story, where Daphne turns into a laurel tree. It opens with Apollo creaming: "Stop, cruel Daphne: Are you fleeing from Apollo?" In the first aria he expresses his love, to the accompaniment of muted strings. In the first aria of Disperata Porcia, the protagonist expresses the wish to die, which is vividly depicted in the music, for instance through harmony and the use of sighing figures. In the last recitative from Lavinia a Turno, the dramatic development is underlined by a turn from secco to accompanied recitative.

Some arias are quite long, and could easily be taken for full-blooded opera arias. An example is 'Placa lo sdegno' from Lavinia a Turno which takes more than twelve minutes. That poses a great challenge to the interpreters, first of all the soloist. Hannah Morrison has a lovely voice, and I have enjoyed her performances in sacred music of the baroque era, for instance cantatas by Bach and Telemann. I am not sure that she has the voice and the personality for more dramatic secular stuff, such as the cantatas by the Grauns. The more lyrical arias come off best by far, but the dramatic elements, and especially the rage aria I mentioned above, make little impression. Overall I find her treatment of the material too restrained. Her singing is a bit too one-dimensional, both in the recitatives and in the arias. I often complain about unstylish and exaggerated ornamentation; some singers tend to rewrite entire lines in the dacapos. Morrison, on the other hand, is too economical in this department, and that is one of the reasons this recording does not really satisfy me. The playing of the Main-Barockorchester is too straightforward. It includes here six violins and two violas. I don't know whether the scores indicate that the string parts have to be performed with more than one instrument per part. I assume that this line-up is the result of a decision on the part of the performers. Unfortunately it is not discussed in the liner-notes.

This disc is certainly welcome as it sheds light on an aspect of music life at Frederick's court, which is hardly explored as yet. And the vocal music of the Graun brothers deserves more attention. There is little wrong with the singing and playing as such, as all the artists involved are outstanding performers. It is just unfortunate that the dramatic aspects are seriously underexposed.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Julia Lezhneva
Concerto Köln

CD Reviews