J. G. Graun: Torna vincitor

Cantatas & Viola da Gamba Concerto
Amanda Forsythe soprano, Opera Prima, Cristiano Contadin
cpo 555 284-2

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There were three brothers Graun that became musicians, although only  Johann Gottlieb (1702/3-1771) and Carl Heinrich (1703/4-1759) became significant composers. Both served Frederick the Great at Potsdam, J G as leader of Berlin orchestra from 1740, while C H became Kapellmeister in the same year. Today C H Graun is much the better known largely due to his great success in Berlin as an opera composer, a genre in which his brother showed no interest in competing. Otherwise, the closely paralleled careers of the Grauns have caused musicologists not inconsiderable difficulties as to attribution of their instrumental works.

One group, however, that is not in dispute are the works Johann Gottlieb wrote involving the viola da gamba. He probably first discovered an interest in the instrument during his time as orchestral leader at Merseburg in the 1720s, where he came into contact with the gambist and violinist Hertel. However, it seems likely that the greatest influence on Graun’s attachment to the gamba was the virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse, whose father had studied with Marais and Forqueray in Paris. Hesse became a leading figure in the musical entourage of the Berlin court, where he worked alongside Graun from 1740 until 1761, presumably the period from which the majority of the former’s 27 known gamba works date.   

The present CD includes three of these works, two large-scale cantatas for soprano, viola da gamba and strings and a three-movement Concerto in A minor, a work that has also been recorded by the great Italian gambist Vittorio Ghielmi (Astrée). The cantatas sung by the American soprano Amanda Forsythe are premiere recordings. Their texts are by Metastasio and like the operas of his brother (who set several of the great poet’s librettos) totally Italian in style. Both owe much to the pastoral movement, the first, ‘O Dio, Fileno’, concerning the laments of the shepherdess left by her lover to go to war, the oft-employed metaphor comparing love and war fully exploited in the long accompanied recitative that lies at the heart of the cantata. The enchanting ‘Già la sera’ takes a lighter look at love, as the lover tries to entice his Nice to leave the fields and live with him on the seashore, his enticements articulated in two arias which describe the alluring charms of eventide on the shoreline. Again they surround a long central accompagnato in which Nice is told she can become both ‘shepherdess and a fisher girl’. The needs to involve the concertante role for gamba and the fact that arias are in fully developed da capo form gives them an expansive scope, the first of the former work alone lasting for over 14 minutes. The writing for gamba, especially in ‘O Dio, Fileno’,

is extremely demanding, featuring rapid passagework and virtuoso polyphonic chordal writing. Perhaps its most appealing contribution comes in the opening aria of ‘Già la sera’, where voice and gamba work in sympathetic imitation to delightful effect.

The A-minor Concerto displays some of the nervous energy associated with Empfindsamkeit and also features much bravura writing for the gamba. In the outer movements, an opening orchestral statement is taken up by the gambist, its themes developed by the soloist in passaggi, chordal counterpoint and so forth. The central Adagio plays with ambiguity by alternating major and minor. It’s a moderately appealing work, less enticing here than in Ghielmi’s more characterful performance. Amanda Forsythe has a bright, pure soprano capable of agility and also sustaining cantabile lines with assurance, but it is difficult to avoid the feeling that she might have been heard to greater advantage in a less resonant acoustic than that provided by what sounds to be a large hall in the wonderful 16th century Villa Bolasco at Castelfranco in the Veneto. The long reverberation period allows the voice to spread uncomfortably in the upper range, but even making allowances for that her performances fall some way short of ideal. Passaggi and ornamentation are too frequently articulated without depth and far too little attention has been paid to diction and interpreting the text, though ‘Già la sera’ is not without the merit of generalized appeal and includes some impressive mezza voce singing. An interesting disc, then, but not an essential one.

Brian Robins      

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