Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Carl Heinrich Graun: Weihnachtsoratorium - companion to Bach's

Carl Heinrich Graun isn't the best-known German baroque composer, but at the time he was one of the most prominent. Frederick the Great appointed Graun kapellmeister to his court in 1740.

Graun was also one of the major opera composers in Berlin. His Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) was probably written in the late 1730s.

Compared to Johann Sebastian Bach's 1734 Christmas Oratorio, Graun's work seems simpler. There are less counterpoint and more straight-forward choral settings of hymn tunes.

Graun also uses less Biblical text than Bach, preferring contemporary interpretations of the story. While a comparison of the two works might explain why Bach is better-known than Graun today, it's also a little unfair.

Graun was writing for a different audience, and writing in his own style. Taking on its own merits, his Christmas Oratorio is an appealing work that deserves to be heard again. The solos and duets are written in a straight-forward manner, with a minimum of baroque ornamentation.

The center of the work is Paul Gerhardt's 1648 Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How Shall I Leave You). This sturdy Lutheran hymn is heard at the beginning, middle, and end of the oratorio.

There are some contrapuntal choral passages, but they hew to Lutheran clarity. The choral settings, to my ears, seemed closer to Handel than Bach. The soloists for this recording are first-rate. I particularly liked the warm, rounded voice of alto Marian Eckstein.

The Arcis-Vocalisten München and the Barockorchester L’arpa festante have a big, full ensemble sound. This is a well-written work performed with vigor and energy. If you enjoy the large choral works of Handel, Telemann, and, yes, even Bach, you should find much to like here. I know I did.

Carl Heinrich Graun: Weihnachtsoratorium 
Monika Mauch, soprano; Marion Eckstein, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Raimund Nolte, bass 
Arcis-Vocalisten München; Barockorchester L’arpa festante; Thomas Gropper, conductor 
Oehms Classics OC 1876

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Raunächte - The Twelve Nights after Christmas in Pastels

For Americans, the Twelve Days of Christmas means turtledoves, drummers drumming and five golden rings. But for Northern Europeans, that time between Christmas day and Epiphany (January 6) is when winter weather is often its harshest. And yet it's also a time of hope.

Raunächte collects twelve works that exemplify that spirit of hope "in the bleak midwinter." If the carol "The 12 Days of Chrismas" evokes bright, primary reds and greens, these compositions conjure up images in soft pastels. Even works such as John Rutter's "Gabriel's Message" and Edward Elgar's "The Snow" seem more muted.

The LaCapella-Family is a group of five ensembles that present a varied program. The contemporary selections are especially strong. Ola Gjeilo's "Tundra" depicts the windswept landscape with a hauntingly beautiful melody set against rustling strings and piano. "The Piece of Wild Things" by Joan Szymko for female choir and piano glistens like moonlight reflections on snow. I love it.

Also of note in this album of extraordinarily beautiful works is Franz Herzog's luminous arrangement of "Es wird scho glei dumpa" for a capella choir. The album concludes with a joyful "Magnificat" by Agneta Skjöld.

If you're looking for something different this holiday season, consider Raunächte. It's seasonal music drawn in pastels, yet with an amazing variety of emotions and tonal colors. 

Raunächte - The Twelve Nights after Christmas
Music by John Rutter, Ola Gjeilo, Joan Szymko, Wilhelm Nagel, Morten Vinther Sørensen, Cesar Bresgen, Edward Elgar, Gjendine Slålien, Felix Mendelssohn, Agneta Skjöld  
Rondeau Productions ROP6149

Friday, December 08, 2017

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week 2

I'm a regular contributor to the #ClassicsaDay Twitter feed. In December 2017, I focused on the music of the season that doesn't get a lot of exposure -- but should. Below is an annotated list of the works I featured in the feed with the supporting hashtag #ClassicalChristmas.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) - Weihnachtshistorie, SWV 435

Heinrich Schütz was one of the most famous -- and influential -- German composers of the generation before Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach used Schütz's sacred choral works as models for his own. The Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) premiered in Dresden in 1623. It's a very Lutheran treatment of the text, with clarity paramount. The work features a six-part choir, an orchestra, and soloists.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - Weihnachtsbaum

Franz Liszt composed his Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) suite for his first grandchild, Daniela von Bülow. He played it for her on Christmas Day, 1881, when she was 21. The work has twelve sections, divided into three books. Several German Christmas carols are quoted in the work, including "Adeste Fidelis" and "O Holy Night." Lizst also created a piano 4-hands version of the work.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) - Missa Hodie Christus natus est

Often called "the Prince of Music," Palestrina's style became the standard for sacred music in the Roman Catholic Church for generations. Palestrina wrote music for all aspects of worship. The "Hodie Christus natus est" is one of 105 masses Palestrina wrote. Based on a motet of the same name, it was designed for the Christmas Morning worship service.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) - In Terra Pax, Op. 39

English composer Gerald Finzi set poetry by Robert Bridges with selections from Luke. This work is a modern contemplation of the Christmas story. As Finzi relates it, the inspiration came from an event of his youth. Finzi had climbed up a church tower and heard the midnight bells echoing over the snow-swept hills of Gloucestershire welcoming Christmas Day.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) - Lauda per la Natività del Signore

Respighi drew the texts for Lauda per la Natività del Signore from two sources. He used a medieval hymn of praise and the writings of 13th C. cleric Jacophone da Todi. The work, written around 1930, focuses on the birth of Jesus and the Annunciation to the shepherds (and their visit). Respighi's scoring heavily relies on double reeds (oboes and bassoons) to evoke a pastoral feel.

#ClassicalChristmas Annotated List Week 1