September 1, 2013 | Altena, James A.
GRAUN Osteroratorium * Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Nina Koufochristou (sop); Dagmar Saskova (alt); Jan Kobow (ten); Andreas Wolf (bs); Kölner Akademie * CPO 7777942 (64:08 *)
As with much of the oeuvre of Carl Heinrich Graun (170459), the date of composition of his Easter Oratorio is unknown. Based on stylistic grounds, it probably belongs among his earlier works composed in Dresden or Braunschweig (Brunswick), before he moved to Prussia in 1735 and ultimately became Kapellmeister to Frederick II. It survives in a single manuscript copy by an unknown hand from the later 18th century, and the librettist is not named. It is divided into four sections, for performance respectively on Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday, and the First Sunday after Easter in the liturgical calendar. Except for two brief verses taken from the Bible, the text consists of poetic meditations on Christ, his resurrection, and the import of those for the true believer.
Today, Graun remains remembered almost solely for his Passiontide oratorio Der Tod Jesu, which was performed every Good Friday by the Berlin Singakademie for a span of almost 130 years (see my review of the Pál Németh recording on Hungaroton in 34:1). The redoubtable CPO label is primarily responsible for what little more knowledge most of us have of the composer’s music, having previously issued recordings of the Christmas Oratorio, the Grosse Passion, the opera Montezuma, and single discs of sacred motets and instrumental concerti. The Harmonia Mundi label also issued a recording of the opera Cleopatra e Cesare conducted by René Jacobs. Reactions to these additional works by the Fanfare critics who have reviewed them Bertil van Boer, Michael Carter, Henry Fogel, Ronald E. Grames, David Johnson, and David L. Kirkhave expressed sharply divided views on their merits. Some have found Graun to be a dull Kapellmeister and routine notespinner, whereas others have expressed pleasure at the restoration of a skilled if second rank composer to living memory.
In this instance, at least, my vote joins those in the second camp. This is a lovely and delightful work, which astonishes by its remarkable stylistic similarities to Handel in its harmonic and melodic contours. Indeed, had someone played selected parts of it for me and told me it was a recently rediscovered work by Handel from a German source, I would have believed it. The orchestration is somewhat more brilliant than Handel employs in e.g., Messiah; the 24 members of the instrumental ensemble include pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and horns, plus three trumpets, timpani, organ, and strings. The superb quartet of vocal soloists, a veritable model for recordings of such repertoire, (even if tenor Jan Kobow is not quite as suave of voice as his colleagues) also serves as the chorus when needed. The Kölner Akademie is likewise beyond praise, and conductor Michael Alexander Willens exploits every bar of the score to fullest expressive effect. CPO provides its usual copious booklet notes and stellar recorded sound in addition to a complete German/English text. (Very oddly, in the English texts there are a number of words printed with random single space gaps dividing them into two parts.) For anyone looking to go beyond Bach and Handel for worthy exemplars of late Baroque sacred music, this recording should be a prime choice; highly recommended.
James A. Altena