Carl Heinrich Graun: Easter Oratorio / Kölner Akademie, Willens


Carl Heinrich Graun (1703-1759) is another enormously gifted composer whose music has been thoroughly eclipsed by that of great and like-sounding contemporaries. In Graun's case, it's Bach and Handel. Best known in his day as a composer of opera, Graun also produced a relatively large body of sacred music. While several of his operas are occasionally recorded and performed, he may have a better foothold on a place in music history for his sacred works. This new release from cpo brings us the world premiere recording of Graun's Easter Oratorio performed by the Kölner Akademie orchestra and chorus under the direction of Michael Alexander Willens.

Carl Heinrich Graun was appointed Director of the Berlin Royal Opera by his employer Frederick the Great and wrote twenty-six operas for the house during his tenure. Together with Johann Adolph Hasse, he was the most important composer of Italian opera in mid-eighteenth century Germany. The primary work however that lent staying power to his name is his passion cantata Der Tod Jesu of 1755 which, like Handel's Messiah in England, was performed annually in Germany during Holy Week up through the end of the nineteenth century.

Writing at the crossroads of baroque and pre-classical Germany, Graun's music reflects a combination of old and new concepts. Listen to how he uses various instrumental combinations to produce interesting and contrasting colors for example. His arias are especially effective, in part because he provides a fresh instrumental backdrop for each one. In one instance its two bassoons, in another, a duo of horns, and for a more festive declamation, a pair of trumpets.

The music is beautiful and certainly deserves a very wide audience, but it is just as imperative to hear this for the splendid performance! A small ensemble, the Kölner Akademie consists of about a dozen strings in all, and one voice to a part in the choir. Orchestra, chorus and soloists are evenly superb, performing with an extraordinary uniformity of color and expression. The result is a clarity and fine-grained texture that allows us to hear Graun's music in the best possible light, and cpo has engineered the remarkably realistic sound-space that the performance deserves.

Maestro Willens graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions regarding this recording. You can click on the Interview tab above to read that brief interview.