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Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1705 - 1759): "Uns ist ein Kind geboren - Weihnachtsoratorium" (Christmas Oratorio)

Monika Mauch, soprano; Marion Eckstein, contralto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Raimund Nolte, bass
Arcis-Vocalisten München; L'arpa festante
Dir: Thomas Gropper

rec: Dec 5 - 8, 2016, Munich-Sendling, Himmelfahrtskirche
Oehms - OC 1876 (© 2017) (77'11")
Liner-notes: E/D; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Gottlieb Graun and his younger brother Carl Heinrich were two of the main members of the chapel of Frederick the Great of Prussia, first in Rheinsberg, and then in Berlin. Both were also active as composers, but often it is impossible to be sure, which of the two is the composer of a piece, as they usually signed their compositions just with 'Graun'. Generally speaking Johann Gottlieb is responsible for most of the instrumental works, whereas Carl Heinrich mainly composed vocal works, secular as well as sacred. Part of the latter category is the work, that has brought him fame, the Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu.

That was not his only oratorio for Passiontide. In the 1720s he worked as a tenor in the court ensemble in Braunschweig. Here he composed many sacred cantatas and two Passion oratios, known as Grosse Passion and Kleine Passion respectively. It seems likely that the Christmas Oratorio was written in the same period. There are stylistic similarities between the oratorio and the two Passions. There is another notable connection: the heart of the Christmas Oratorio is a sequence of seven stanzas of the chorale Wie soll ich dich empfangen (Paul Gerhardt, 1648). Stanzas from the same hymn also appear in these two Passions. This and the fact that it is also part of the introduction to Der Tod Jesu has given food to the suggestion that this hymn may be a kind of 'personal fingerprint' of the composer.

What is usually called Christmas Oratorio is ranked among the cantatas in Graun's work-list in New Grove, with the title Mache dich auf, werde Licht, after the opening chorus. The libretto shows strong similarity with the Passion oratorios of the time. In contrast to Bach's Christmas Oratorio it is not the biblical text which is the core of this work. It is rather a meditation on the event of Jesus' birth; only three passages from the gospel after Luke are quoted. On the other hand, there are several quotations from the Old Testament throughout the oratorio. The first dictum is the opening chorus: "Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee" (Isaiah 60, vs 1). Texts from the same book are quoted in the fifth section, again a chorus: the sixth verse from Chapter 9 is split into two sections, which embrace three sections for soprano solo.

Most of the recitatives are accompanied, and all the arias have the dacapo form. In the latter we find some notable instrumental scorings. The tenor aria 'Erfülle mich' includes two obbligato bassoon parts, in the duet 'Herr, in Frieden will ich sterben' soprano and alto are accompanied by two horns, plus the usual strings and basso continuo. In the second tenor aria, 'Ew'ger Sohn', the score includes an obbligato part for viola pomposa. The arias are certainly challenging, especially those for the soprano; 'Die Sterblichkeit gebiert das Leben' includes some pretty high notes. However, they are not as operatic as arias in so many oratorios which wee written later in the 18th century.

The chorale also plays a considerable role here. I have already mentioned the seven-stanza sequence in the centre of the piece. The fourth section is another chorale in two stanzas: Gott sei dank durch alle Welt. In the ensuing chorus around the quotation from Isaiah 9 the soprano has three sections: two recitatives embracing the chorale Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein, which we also find in Bach's Christmas Oratorio. The 17th section is another chorale, Ein Kindelein so löbelich, and the penultimate section is the opening stanza from the hymn Lob, Preis und Dank Herr Jesu Christ.

Graun's Christmas Oratorio is an impressive piece which has many qualities to make it well worth being performed as an alternative to, for instance, Bach's Christmas Oratorio. From that perspective this recording has to be welcomed, even though this work was already available on disc.

The soloists deliver outstanding performances. I regret the slight vibrato of Marion Eckstein, but she sings the first aria 'Erscheine doch und komm' in a very expressive manner. Impressive is Raimund Nolte, whose powerful voice is perfectly suited to the only bass aria, 'Abgrund krache, Tod erzittre': "Abyss crash, death tremble, hell vanish and close, because my Saviour is coming". Georg Poplutz has the perfect voice for the tenor arias and recitatives, as well as immaculate diction and articulation. The soprano arias receive an excellent performance thanks to the radiant voice of Monika Mauch. In all arias the ornamentation is spot on: stylish and never exaggerated. The text is always clearly intelligible.

That is a bit different in the choral parts. The booklet does not tell how many singers are involved, but the choir sounds pretty large. As a result the choral parts are not as transparent as one would wish. It is for this reason that I tend to prefer the first recording of this oratorio, directed by Hermann Max (CPO, 1999). His choir, the Rheinische Kantorei, is hard to surpass, whereas in the field of the soloists there is little to choose as both teams are very good. Max has the slightly faster tempi, but mostly that doesn't really matter. However, there is a major advantage: the CPO booklet includes the complete libretto with translations. The present recording omits the text entirely, which I find unacceptable. There is also no possibility to download the text from the label's site. This is a serious shortcoming of a production which is musically largely convincing and sheds light on a very fine work, which deserves more attention.

N.B. A thorough analysis of Graun's 'Christmas Oratorio' has been written by Jason Douglas Vodicka, Carl Heinrich Graun's Weihnachtsoratorium: A Musical Analysis and Conductor's Guide (Dissertation; Athens, GA, 2013).

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Marion Eckstein
Monika Mauch
Raimund Nolte
Georg Poplutz

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