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Johann Jeremias DU GRAIN (? - 1756): "Sacred Cantatas"

Marie Smolka, sopranoa; Elisabeth Holmer, contraltob; Georg Poplutz, tenorc; Marek Rzepka, bassd
Goldberg Vocal Ensemble; Goldberg Baroque Ensemble
Dir: Andrzej Szadejko

rec: Sept 18 - 20, 2017, Gdansk
MDG - 902 2060-2 (© 2018) (71'02")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Alter Adam, du musst sterbenb; Herr, nun lässest du Deinen Diener in Frieden gehena; Mitten wir im Leben sind; Willkommen, Erlöser der Erdend

Few music lovers will know the name of Johann Jeremias du Grain. We know very little about him; his surname suggests that he was of French descent, probably an heir of French Huguenots. As this name frequently appears in the city's records, one may assume that he was born in Danzig. However, he is first mentioned in 1730 in Hamburg as a soloist in a cantata by Telemann, whose pupil he was. It seems also possible that Du Grain was born in nearby Altona, which included a strong French Reformed congregation. From 1732 he lived in Elbing (ow Elblag, Poland), where he was active as a singer and a keyboard player. In 1737 he became assistant organist of the Marienkirche. In 1737 he composed a St Matthew Passion, which was performed well into the 19th century. During his time there he was also in contact with George Frideric Handel. The latter helped him to compile a cantata for the 500th anniversary of the city, which included, alongside recitatives and arias by Du Grain, material from Handel's operas. This work has been lost. In 1739 Du Grain left Elbing for Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland). There he performed some of his own music, but also pieces by Telemann and Handel's Brockes Passion. He also served as organist at St Elisabeth's.

Most of Du Grain's surviving music seems to date from his time in Elbing. That is the case with the four cantatas included in the programme recorded here by the Goldberg Baroque Ensemble. The three liturgical cantatas are all from 1737.

Willkommen Erlöser der Erden is a cantata for the first Day of Christmas. It is scored for bass, four-part choir and an orchestra of two oboes, two trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. It opens with a chorus, which is repeated at the end. In between are two recitatives, embracing an aria. The latter ("Beware, raging enemies") is rather belligerent in character, which is effectively illustrated in the music. Notably, at the end of the second recitative the basso continuo section is joined by the timpani, introducing a return to the opening chorus. According to Andrzej Szadejko these two bass arias are technically very demanding, and assumes that the composer, who was skilled bass himself, may have their first performer.

Alter Adam, du musst sterben is an Advent cantata, which focuses on the second coming of Christ and refers to the 'old Adam': man in his natural sinful state, who needs redemption through Christ. It is scored for alto, two horns, strings and basso continuo. It opens with an aria which is followed by a recitative. Next are two arias; in the second aria the figures in the strings depict the rushing of the wind and the roar of the tempest, to which the text refers. After another recitative the cantata closes with a chorale, in which the lines are separated by instrumental interventions in which the horns play a prominent role.

Herr, du lässest deinen Diener is for Candlemas, and scored for soprano, strings and basso continuo. The title refers to the words of Simeon, which have been set numerous times in the course of history: "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace." These words are quoted in the opening movement, with the indication siciliano. After a recitative the soprano sings a short aria on the next line of Simeon's song, paraphrased as "Then my eyes have seen my Saviour". It is followed by another recitative, and the cantata closes with a long aria, taking almost twice as much time as the previous sections together.

The last and longest piece on this disc is an occasional work, written for the obsequies of Johann Sigismund Jungschulz Neodicus von Röbern, Mayor of Elbing, who died on 10 September 1738. It is divided into fifteen sections, ten of which are to be performed before and five after the sermon. It is scored for four voices - soli and tutti - and an orchestra of two oboes, two horns, strings and basso continuo. The opening sinfonia is dominated by descending figures which include chromatic notes. Mitten wir im Leben sind is one of Martin Luther's most famous hymns and frequently used for funeral music. The chorus is followed by a duet of tenor and bass; the former sings the cantus firmus. Another chorus follows; the soloists sing the chorale melody in turn. The ensuing recitative is divided between bass and alto; the latter then sings an aria, which is again dominated by descending figures. Next are a chorale and a chorus; after that the bass has a recitative and an aria, which sings the praise of God's love for sinners through Christ. Two chorales follow; after another recitative we hear a chorale on the melody of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. A recitative for bass leads to the closing chorale; the text is the fourth stanza from a hymn of Erdmann Neumeister, which is sung on the melody known with the text Freue dich, o meine Seele.

It is not the first time I have heard cantatas by Du Grain. In fact, two of the cantatas performed here have been previously recorded by the same ensemble, albeit with different soloists. That seems a bit disappointing, but the performances on the present disc are better than the earlier recordings. And, it has to be added, there are no real alternatives: only a handful of cantatas by Du Grain have been preserved. He clearly was a talented composer, and these cantatas beat witness to that, but he was certainly not more than average. There are certainly things to enjoy here, but there is little that makes a lasting impression. That said, though these performances may be better than the previous ones, I am still not really satisfied. The choir sings rather well, but I am less happy with the contributions of the soloists. One has to admire the way Marek Rzepka deals with the virtuosic bass arias, but I don't find his voice very attractive (which is a matter of taste, of course) and his singing lacks some subtlety. Marie Smolka and Elisabeth Holmer have not enough presence; in the alto part I would have preferred a more 'open' voice. The soloists and the choir are not fully integrated, which manifests itself in the choruses with solo episodes.

This is a disc which will attract only those who have a more than average interest in German sacred music of the early 18th century. Before I come to a more definitive conclusion about Du Grain's qualities I would like to hear really outstanding performances. And I would certainly love to hear his St Matthew Passion; that could tell us a lot.

(*) In an earlier version of this review, published at MusicWeb International, I expressed my doubts about the use of a choir of fourteen voices, and expressed a preference for a performance with solo voices, if desired with one additional ripienist per part. I am grateful to Andrzej Szadejko for letting me know that in Gdansk the use of a choir of this size was common until the early 19th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Elisabeth Holmer
Georg Poplutz
Marek Rzepka
Marie Smolka
Goldberg Baroque Ensemble

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