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Christoph GRAUPNER (1683 - 1760): Orchestral and chamber music

[I] "Per il flauto"

Ars Musica Zürich
Dir: Sabrina Frey

rec: May 21 - 27, 2008, Zürich, Kirche Neumünster
Berlin Classics - 0016532BC (© 2009) (67'59")

[II] "Suite de Suites"

Antichi Strumenti
Dir: Tobias Bonz, Laura Toffetti

rec: May 28 - 30, 2007, Mittlach (France)
Stradivarius - Str 33797 (© 2008) (52'11")

[I] Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in F (GWV 323); Overture for recorder, strings and bc in F (GWV 447): Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G (GWV 707); Sonata for transverse flute and harpsichord in G (GWV 708); Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc in b minor (GWV 219) Sonata canonica for 2 recorders, viola da gamba and bc in g minor (GWV 216)
[II] Overture for 2 trumpets, strings and bc in D (GWV 420); Overture for 2 trumpets, strings and bc in D (GWV 421)

[I] Sabrina Frey, recorder; Fiorenza de Donatis, Andrea Rognoni, violin; Stefano Marcocchi, viola; Marco Frazzato, cello; Vital Julian Frey, harpsichord; with: Maurice Steger, recorder; Rodney Prada, viola da gamba; Markus Bernhard, violone

Of all the composers in 18th-century Germany Christoph Graupner is one of the most singular. It is difficult to grasp his musical style as it seems so out of step with the compositional mainstream of his time. Even after repeated listening to a particular piece it is hard to remember anything, let alone that one is able to whistle or sing something one just has heard. It seems to me the reason for that is that Graupner's music is consisting of short motifs which seem to follow each other in random order.

This could well be the reason why for a long time his music wasn't given much attention to. But that seems to change. Elsewhere on this site I have reviewed several recordings with his music. Right now two further discs are released, one of them by the ensemble Antichi Strumenti, which has recorded some music by Graupner before.

In particular the disc by Sabrina Frey and her ensemble Ars Musica Zürich presents a fascinating and intriguing portrait of Graupner's musical language. There is much variation in his oeuvre. It seems to connect the styles of the past and of the future. The past is represented by the Sonata canonica in g minor, which - as its title says - is based on the technique of the canon. This is applied rigorously as the two recorders follow each other strictly in canon. This can be traced back to the influence of Johann Kuhnau, Graupner's teacher in Leipzig and Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor. As late as in 1736 he copied Kuhnau's treatise Von dem doppelten Contrapunct, which was circulating only in manuscript. That is most remarkable since at that time the fashion had changed into giving priority to melody over counterpoint.

On the other hand we hear modern traces in Graupner's music. In particular the sudden changes of melody and Affekt in, for instance, the Sonata in b minor or the Sonata in G (GWV 707) - in particular in the first allegro - seem to point into the direction of the Sturm und Drang. The treatment of the two instruments in the Sonata in b minor is contrary to what one may expect from a baroque trio sonata. Great melodic irregularity is also a feature of the Sonata in g (GWV 708), which has a written-out basso continuo part.

In comparison the Concerto in F is much more in line with what one is used to hear in a baroque solo concerto. With its three movements it is composed in the style of the concertos by Vivaldi. But the Overture in F is again a rather strange piece. One expects the recorder to have an important solo part. But in several movements it merely acts as one of the instruments of the ensemble for large period of time, only to intervene now and then. In particular in the second movement, called 'La Speranza' (hope), the vivid motifs of the recorder seem completely out of step with the quiet figures the strings are producing. The length of the various movements already indicates the irregularity of the piece: the fifth movement is an 'air' which is considerably longer than almost all other movements. On this disc the first two movements are called largo and allegro but they are just the two sections of the first movement, called 'ouverture'. In the second section - the allegro - there are two moments where the ensemble slows down and the recorder has a very short solo - almost like a cadenza, though not improvised, but written out.

This Overture is just one of the total of 85 Graupner composed. It was one of the most popular forms of orchestral music: in addition to his own overtures he copied some written by others, like Telemann and Fasch. The disc of the ensemble Antichi Strumenti offers two further overtures, this time for 2 trumpets, strings and bc. In his programme notes Tobias Bonz writes: "On this recording, the addition of percussion instruments on some movements of the Overtures is thus a choice of ours to highlight Graupner's taste." I am not sure whether this refers to the addition of all percussion instruments, including the timpani, or only to the addition of other percussion instruments in some of the movements. The use of timpani is certainly defendable as trumpets and timpani usually play together in baroque music. I find the use of other percussion instruments less convincing. This reflects a practice which was common in France in the 17th century, but the fact that the orchestral overture finds its origin there doesn't justify to follow this practice in music written in Germany in the 18th century.

The same is true for the addition of woodwind instruments to the original scoring. It was not uncommon in France to add transverse flutes or oboes to play colla parte with the strings or to replace them at times. But that is not to say one can follow the same practice in suites by Graupner or other German composers. Also the change of scoring in a dacapo is questionable. But otherwise the performances by Antichi Strumenti is quite good, although I find the first sections of the overtures too slow.

The recording by Sabrina Frey and her ensemble are equally good, but here some decisions regarding the scoring are questionable as well. In the the three sonatas GWV 707, 708 and 219 the part for transverse flute is played at the recorder. It is stated in the booklet that this was common practice, but as there is no information about the date of composition this is difficult to verify. Fact of the matter is that during Graupner's career the recorder was in decline, and in a way the 'progressive' aspects I have referred to are a little underexposed by using the recorder. In particular in the Overture the playing of the strings is a little too abrasive.

Despite my critical remarks I recommend these two discs which broaden our view on one of the most remarkable and intriguing composers of the 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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