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Christoph GRAUPNER (1683 - 1760): "Partitas for Harpsichord"

Naoko Akutagawa, harpsichord

rec: Dec 3 - 5, 2007, Wertheim (G), Convent Bronnbach
Naxos - 8.570459 (© 2008) (58'32")

Partita in c minor (GWV 133); Partita in f minor (GWV 121); Partita in A (GWV 149)

Not long ago Christoph Graupner wasn't much more than a name. He was mainly known for being one of the applicants for the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig in succession to Johann Kuhnau. He was second on the list of the town council, and when the first, Georg Philipp Telemann, was not available after all, they turned to Graupner. But his employer, the Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt, didn't want to let him go, and therefore Leipzig had to go for - as it was called - 'medocrity' in the person of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Some of Graupner's music was recorded in the past, but only since the beginning of this century some musicians have started to focus on his oeuvre. The German conductor and keyboard player Siegbert Rampe recorded two discs with orchestral and chamber music with his ensemble Nova Stravaganza (MDG), and the Canadian harpsichordist Geneviève Soly is recording Graupner's keyboard music (Analekta). In his programme notes, Glen Wilson - himself a renowned harpsichordist and the former teacher of Naoko Akutagawa - refers to Graupner's "sterling reputation as a performer". A part of Graupner's keyboard music has been published during his lifetime, but this disc mainly contains pieces which were never printed. And Wilson may be right in suggesting the virtuosity of these pieces is such that they were mainly written for Graupner's own use.

The works here are called 'Partita' which is one of the terms used in Germany for a suite of dance movements. The standard structure of the suite was a sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. But - like other composers - Graupner adapted the structure when he wanted. And so the Partita in A, which opens this disc, begins with a preludium, the sarabande - with double - is followed by a menuet and an aria with 5 variations, before closing with a gigue. (Or rather, it does on this disc: it really ends with a Chaconne which is played later.) The Partita in c minor doesn't have a gigue at all; again it opens with a praeludium, and after the sarabande we find a menuet and another aria with variations. The disc ends with the Partita in f minor which was the first of a series of Partitas which was planned to be published as 'The Four Seasons', but only this Partita, called 'Winter', has come down to us. It is not known whether Graupner for some reason didn't continue with this series or whether the other pieces have been lost. This work also starts with a praeludium, followed by allemande and courante, three menuets, an 'air en sarabande' and is closed with a 'bourrée en rondeau'.

As many composers in Germany Graupner, both in his keyboard works as in his orchestral music, is a representative of the 'mixed taste', a combination of French and Italian elements. The preludes are especially interesting because of their almost improvisatory nature. All of them are in two sections: the preludes of the Partita in c minor and the Partita in f minor begin with a slow section, followed by a fast second section. The prelude of the Partita in A is in fact a prelude and fugue, and bears the traces of the stylus phantasticus which was a feature of the North-German organ school. Graupner is more interested in counterpoint than some of his contemporaries. This shows the influence of his teacher, Johann Kuhnau, who thoroughly instructed him in counterpoint.

Naoko Akutagawa shows her impressive technical skills in this programme of pieces which are often very virtuosic. That is not only the case in the preludes, which are played with the appropriate touch of improvisation, but also in the large Chaconne - probably one of the longest in the 18th century. It is another bow to tradition in that it is a passacaille bass but slightly extended. It was originally part of the Partita in A which opens this disc, but played here independently. Ms Akutagawa plays it brilliantly with an intensity which never fades. Other highlights are the air with variations which ends the Partita in c minor and the three menuets from the Partita in f minor. She has a very good sense for the rhythm of the dance movements (listen, for instance, to the courante from the Partita in A). Only the menuets of the Partita in A and the Partita in c minor could have been played with a little more elegance; Ms Akutagawa's performance is a bit too robust to my taste.

I mentioned some highlights in this recording, but in fact that is hardly necessary as this disc is captivating from beginning to end. If you are sceptical about the quality of a composer whose name hardly ever appears on the concert programmes of keyboard players, just purchase this disc. I am sure it will convince you that Graupner was a great composer whose name deserves to be mentioned in one breath with the likes of Telemann, Fasch, and - indeed - Johann Sebastian Bach. And it wouldn't surprise me at all if you would start to look for more. Thanks to Naoko Akutagawa and her wonderful recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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Naoko Akutagawa

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