From its composition and first performance in 1755 throughout the nineteenth century Der Tod Jesu was always the much better known passion of German composer Carl Heinrich Graun (1703/4-1759). But it was not Graun's only such work; he actually wrote a total of four sacred passions, of which Große Passion: Kommt her und schaut, GraunWV B:VII:5, is perhaps the most substantial and now the most interesting of them. Neither Die Martern des Erlösers, nor Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld has a current recording; Der Tod Jesu has two: under Howard Arman on Querstand 412 and (probably with the edge) under Sigiswald Kuijken on Hyperion CDA67446. Now the Große Passion: Kommt her und schaut receives a great recording on CPO: it has interest beyond the musicological and this recording should be seriously considered by lovers of the choral and High Baroque repertoires alike.
Educated in Dresden (then a leading center of opera in eastern Germany) and working in Berlin, Graun was strongly influenced by new, Italian vocal developments and the performing styles from the south. He was part of the "Berlin school" which flourished at the court of Frederick the Great; it numbered Carl's brother, Johann Gottlieb Graun, Kirnberger, Quantz, Benda and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach among its leading exponents.
The Italian color, flourish and lyricism are hard to miss in Kommt her und schaut ("Come Here and See") of the "Great" (Große) Passion. It's also characterized by an unusually wide variety of forms and techniques… ariosi; the allocation of parts – different in every case – especially in the duets; the enrichment of some wind (flutes, oboes, bassoons) in choral and solo fashion; liberal quotation from chorales; and the careful contrast Graun makes that moves the narrative forward: he uses both da capo aria and recitative extract at a pace which not only heightens the tension with larger choral numbers, but also bespeaks a dramatic integrity more akin to the operatic story than a sober sacred passion.
Not that the Große Passion is either overly spectacular or gratuitously bright. Given the age at which Graun wrote it (he was around 25), it's a remarkably mature and venerable work. We know J.S. Bach admired both the Graun brothers and with good reason. The indefatigable Hermann Max with his accomplished and highly professional soloists, the Rheinische Kantorei and the instrumentalists of Das Kleine Konzert have done us a great favor by so expertly committing this imposing Passion to CD as imaginatively and competently as they have: it's to be unhesitatingly recommended.
It is, in fact, the musicians' lack of self-consciousness that makes a major contribution to this recording's success. On first hearing, it's tempting to put Graun's Große Passion into the "mediocre" category. But on repeated, careful listenings, its strengths, beauty and penetrating wealth of musically interesting ideas, which are all held together by a structure intricately bound with the confessional text, emerge. They become as clear as they do, though, because Max doesn't let the Passion take any hostages; he makes no allowance for its place in a Court with priorities so different from the milieus in which Bach or Handel worked. He makes no spurious or assumed allowance for such influences on Graun of the Italian operatic world as the operas of Antonio Lotti performed between 1717-1719 on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Elector Friedrich August.
In other words, they have approached and perform the Große Passion by letting it tell its own story, and neither coddling it as a minor work in the genre, nor trying to inject life or light that isn't there. The result is convincing, pleasing and highly enjoyable, as well as being honest and warmly thoughtful. The singing – particularly of Veronika Winter and Markus Schäfer – is excellent: penetrating, sensitive and highly communicative.
At the same time the instrumental playing – particularly of the five strings and three wind – is key to conferring on the Passion, which comprises 67 numbers on two CDs, a gravitas, elegance and eventually a down-to-earth serenity that go some way towards explaining why the work and composer were so highly regarded in Graun's lifetime (Handel borrowed motifs and ideas, not to say excerpts, from the Große Passion).
As you become more and more familiar with this persuasive, distilled and very clean yet communicative account by Max and his forces, it becomes easy to see why it (and its composer) held the status they used to hold. That Graun deserves to be considered more than a historical curiosity now is clear from the care and inspiration that have gone into this production. Let's hope that cpo, with their usually high recording and production standards, have a winner; and that Graun gains new friends and admirers in this, the 250th anniversary year of his death.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey