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Christoph GRAUPNER (1683 - 1760): "Ein Weihnachts Oratorium" (A Christmas Oratorio)

Amaryllis Dieltiensacdfg, Elisabeth Schollbeh, soprano; Lothar Blumacdfg, Reinoud Van Mechelenbeh, tenor; Stefan Geyer, baritoneabcdefgh
Ex Tempore; Mannheimer Hofkapelle
Dir: Florian Heyerick

rec: June 2009abdfgi & June 2010bdeh, Gijzegem, Convent Sint-Vencentiuszusters (chapel)
Ricercar - RIC 307 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.16'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N; lyrics - translations: E/F/N
Cover & tracklist

Die Nacht ist vergangen, cantata for the 1st Sunday of Advent (GWV 1101/22)a; Gott sei uns gnädig, cantata for New Year (GWV 1109/41)b; Heulet, denn des Herrn Tag ist nahe, cantata for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (GWV 1102/26)c; Jauchzet ihr Himmel, erfreue dich Erde, cantata for the 1st Day of Christmas (GWV 1105/53)d; Merk auf, mein Herz, cantata for Epiphany (GWV 1111/44)e; Sie eifern um Gott, cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas (GWV 1106/46)f; Tut Busse und lasse sich ein jeglicher taufen, cantata for the 4th Sunday of Advent (GWV 1104/34)g; Wer da glaubet, dass Jesus sei der Christ, cantata for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (GWV 1103/40)h; Wie bald hast du gelitten, cantata for the Feast of Circumcision (GWV 1109/14)i

Christoph Graupner is one of those German composers of the baroque era who for a long time was almost completely neglected, and who now is one of the most fashionable. In recent years a remarkable number of discs with his music have been released. It is mostly his orchestral and keyboard music which has been given attention. So far the number of recordings with vocal music is rather limited. Last year a disc with five Christmas cantatas was released, performed under the direction of Hermann Max. That same year another production with cantatas for Advent and Christmas was released by Ricercar. It came too late my way to review it on time for Christmas 2010.

It is a matter of good fortune that there are no duplications. Not that there is much chance of that anyway: Graupner wrote more than 1400 cantatas, and no less than 192 are for the time between the first Sunday of Advent and Epiphany. It is a small miracle that almost the complete oeuvre of Graupner has been preserved in manuscript. "His manuscripts - hardly any of his compositions were published during his lifetime or afterwards, the present time being the exception - were not burnt after his death as he himself wished, but were the subject of a legal dispute between the landgrave [Graupner's employer in Darmstadt] and Graupner's heirs. A verdict was given some 60 years later, but there was no longer anyone who was interested in the music anymore and the enormous archive was preserved out of respect for what had been a golden age of music at the court of Hesse", Florian Heyerick writes in his liner-notes. And as the archive was kept outside the city it wasn't burnt during World War II either.

Heyerick is one of today's main advocates of Graupner's oeuvre. It is also the subject of his PhD research at the Hogeschool of Ghent. In the recent past he has presented various programmes with music by Graupner at the concert platform. One of these was a compilation of several cantatas for Advent and Christmas which he performed in 2010 in the form of a Christmas Oratorio. No such oratorio exists; this form was not practised at the court in Darmstadt. Heyerick was inspired by the Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is a cycle of six cantatas. For this 'oratorio' he chose nine cantatas from different periods in Graupner's career, which allows to give some idea of the stylistic development in his sacred music. Although he makes use of the texture which had become tradition in Germany - an opening chorus, recitatives and arias and a closing chorale - he takes various liberties in his cantatas. Graupner's cantatas are also notable for the instrumental scoring which varies from strings to a large body of strings, woodwind, brass and up to four timpani. The cantatas of this 'oratorio' represent the various scorings. Jauchzet ihr Himmel, erfreue dich Erde for the first Day of Christmas is obviously set for a large ensemble, whereas Tut Busse und lasse sich ein jeglicher taufen - for the fourth Sunday of Advent - is scored for just strings and bc.

The vocal scoring deserves special attention. "The court had no choir - although this does not mean that choral singers were never imported for a particular occasion - but it did posses a very good solo bass (vice-Kapellmeister Grünewald) and several good sopranos", Heyerick writes. This explains that the majority of the arias are for either soprano or bass. There are very few arias for alto or tenor. In the cantatas on these discs there are no solo parts for alto, and the tenor has only a couple of recitatives to sing as well as two duets with the soprano. Considering that the court had no choir the decision of Florian Heyerick to use a choir of up to 18 voices is rather odd. In this respect Hermann Max's performance is closer to the original circumstances.

The way this 'oratorio' has been put together is not entirely convincing. The first disc contains cantatas for the four Sundays of Advent, and a cantata for 1 January, the feast of Circumcision. But the second disc also includes a cantata for New Year's Day, although the subject matter is different, and refers to the turn of the year rather than the circumcision. Moreover, no cantatas are selected for the third Day of Christmas, the Sunday after Christmas and the first Sunday after New Year.

The content of the cantatas is closely related to the biblical readings of the particular Sundays. The cantata for the first Sunday of Advent is Die Nacht ist vergangen, which begins with a dictum (a literal quotation from the Bible): "The night is far gone and day is at hand. Let us walk then in honour as if it were full day", referring directly to Romans 13, vs 11-14 which was the reading of that Sunday. On the second Sunday of Advent the gospel was Luke 21, 25-36, where Jesus talks about his second coming. The opening dictum of Graupner's cantata for this Sunday, Heulet, denn des Herrn Tag ist nahe, reflects this: "Weep, for the day of the Lord is nigh. It comes as devastation from the Almighty". Wer da glaubet dass Jesus sei der Christ for the third Sunday of Advent begins with a dictum, quoting 1 John 5, vs 1: "He who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born from God". There is a connection with the reading of the day, 1 Corinthians 4, vs 1-5, where Paul talks about the true faith: "Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful" (vs 2). Tut Busse und lasse sich ein jeglicher taufen is for the fourth Sunday of Advent, and the dictum quotes the speech of Peter at Pentecost: "All who repent and who are baptized in Christ's name for the forgiveness of sin will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2, vs 38). This can be explained by the reading of the day, which is John 1, vs 19-28 where St John the Baptist explains his mission.

In the reading at the first Day of Christmas the annunciation of Jesus' birth to the shepherds plays a central role. This element is referred to several times in the cantata Jauchzet ihr Himmel, erfreue dich Erde. It is an indication of the late date of this cantata that it doesn't begin with a dictum. The second Day of Christmas was also the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Graupner's cantata Sie eifern um Gott refers to this feast, for instance in one of the recitatives: "Woe to him, who spatters fervent and true testimony with slanderous venom and his own blood!". Merk auf, mein Herz is for Epiphany, and links up with the reading from Matthew 2, vs 1-12, the story of the wise men visiting the new-born Christ, for instance in the aria 'Ach, lass dich sehn': "O, reveal yourself, o light of the gentiles, my faith will acknowledge your radiance. Your morning star delights me".

The quality of the cantatas of this 'oratorio' confirms the impressions of the recording under the direction of Hermann Max. They need attentive listening as Graupner's musical idiom is - despite being part of the cantata tradition in Lutheran Germany - highly individual. But anyone who takes time to listen carefully will be richly rewarded. The performances are instrumental in revealing the qualities of Graupner's cantatas. The soloists are excellent: their diction is immaculate, the recitatives are taken with the right amount of rhythmic freedom, and the arias are beautifully sung. The choir may be historically superfluous, the singing is first-class, and so is the playing of the orchestra. Florian Heyerick is an enthusiastic and proficient guide through the world of Graupner's sacred music. May many recordings of this kind follow.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Graupner 2010

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