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Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759): Der Tod Jesu, oratorio

Ute Schwabe, Inge Van de Kerkhove, soprano; Christoph Genz, tenor; Stephan Genz, bass
Ex Tempore; La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken
rec: March 31 - April 2, 2003, Bruges, Concertgebouw
Hyperion - CDA67446 (2 CDs; 1.41'17")

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 Braunschweig from 1725 on. Some years later he became vice-Kapellmeister at Braunschweig, due to his development as a composer. When Prince Friedrich of Prussia married Princess Elisabeth Christine of Braunschweig Graun composed the opera Lo specchio della fedeltŕ, 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. It was there that Der Tod Jesu was first performed in March 1755.

Der Tod Jesu was written on a text by Carl Wilhelm Ramler, an important representative of the German Enlightenment. Ramler wrote it at the request of the King's sister, Princess Anna Amalia. The same text was also used by Telemann, whose composition was first performed in the same year. During the compositional process Graun and Telemann corresponded about technical matters and would later perform each other's work.
In his oratorio Graun moves far away from the Passions which were traditionally composed and performed in Germany. Until the first decades of the 18th century most Passions were so-called oratorio Passions. The core of these oratorios, which were meant to be performed in a liturgical setting, was the text of the gospels. The arias and chorales were meant to encourage the congregation to 're-experience' the Passion of Jesus Christ, as it were, and to take part in the unfolding of the events as reported in the gospels. The were composed in the spirit of Luther's theology of the cross, which emphasized that the Passion of Jesus for the sins of mankind was an absolute precondition to receive the grace of God.

Graun's Der Tod Jesu, however, is an example of the Passion oratorio. Most of these oratorios were meant to be performed outside liturgy, as a public concert, for a paying audience. The texts of these oratorios, written by then well-known poets, like Ramler and Barthold Heinrich Brockes, were either paraphrases of the reports in the gospels or meditations on the Passion of Christ.
In Der Tod Jesu Ramler paraphrases the description in the gospels, for instance the arrest of Jesus: "Now arms clash, spears gleam in the light of torches, and murderers invade. I see murderers: ah! he is doomed! Yet He without fear approaches the foe; magnanimously he speaks" etc.
There are no dialogues here or any drama - it is a description of the events from the standpoint of an - involved - bystander. The arias are meditative as well, and not connected to any of the characters involved, as is the case in other Passion oratorios. The arias are addressed to Jesus (Thou hero, upon whom the quiver of death is emptied, thou hearest him, the weak one [Du Held, auf den die Köcher]) or the sinners - either repentant or non-repentant (You weak souls, you cannot err for long - You tearless sinners, quake! One day among the roses repentance will lift up the serpent's crest [Ihr wechgeschaffnen Seelen]). And in other instances the audience is encouraged to follow the path of virtue: "You who flee from the dust, and see the revolving stars under your feet, now enjoy your virtue!" [Singt dem göttlichen Propheten].

'Virtue' is an important element in the oratorio Passions of the 18th century, reflecting the ideas of the Enlightenment. Jesus is an example of absolute virtue, and mankind should follow in his footsteps, as is expressed in the chorus 'Christus hat uns ein Vorbild gelassen': "Christ has left us a model, so that we should follow in his footsteps." And the duet 'Feinde, die ihr mich betrübt', ends with the phrase: "Blessed is he who resembles Thee!" This oratorio contains only 6 chorales, which were supposed to be sung by the audience. Only the last, 'Ihr Augen, weint!' was explicitly indicated as to be sung by the choir only, as it is too complicated to be sung by amateurs.

This performance takes two discs, lasting just more than 100 minutes. In comparison, the recording by Pál Németh (*) takes just under 80 minutes. This can be partly explained by the fact that Németh has omitted some of the repeats in the arias. But the other factor is a difference in tempi: in general the tempi in this new recording are considerably slower. Sometimes I find them too slow, like in the chorale which opens the oratorio, or in the B-section of the aria 'Du Held, auf den die Köcher'. But, on the other hand, some tempi in Németh's recording are too fast.
In general, none of these two recordings are clearly preferable: sometimes I miss accents on elements of the text in Kuijken's recording where I hear them in Németh's interpretation, but in other instances it is the other way round. As far as the soloists are concerned, I rate the sopranos and the tenor in Kuijken's recording higher than those in Németh's, but his bass soloist Klaus Mertens is no match for Kuijken's Stephan Genz. His choir and orchestra are a little better than those of Németh.

Technically this recording has an astonishing deficiency: the tracks on the discs are not linked, which means that there is a short break of two seconds between all tracks. This is very unnatural, but it becomes even disastrous at the end of the second disc, where the music goes on almost without interruption from track 11 to track 12. At the end of the recitative in track 11 the music is cut before it has faded away, and at the start of track 12, after two seconds of silence, one hears the music of the previous track fade away and then the accompagnato starts. Something like this should not happen in a professional recording from a most respected company like Hyperion.

(*) Mária Zádori, Márta Fers, Martin Klietmann, Klaus Mertens, Chamber Choir Cantamus (Halle), Capella Savaria (Quintana/Harmonia mundi QUI 903061)

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

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