GRAUPNER Concertos: in F, GWV 323;1 in G, GWV 708. Sonatas: in b, GWV 219; in G, GWV 707. Sonata canonica in g, GWV 216.2 Overture in F, GWV 4471 • Sabrina Frey (fl, rcr, cond); Maurice StegerRead more (rcr);2 Rodney Prada (vdg);2 Markus Bernhard (vne);1,2 Ars Musica Zürich (period instruments) • BERLIN 1653 (67:59)
According to not a few music history texts, the high German Baroque can be reduced to a triarchy of Bach, Telemann, and Handel, though Handel ended up switching teams and batting for the Brits. Those same texts, however, might tell a somewhat different story, one of a German Baroque tetrarchy, had fate smiled more kindly on Christoph Graupner (1683–1760), a composer who was offered the position of Kantorship at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig after Telemann turned it down. Only after Graupner’s patron, the Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt, refused to release Grapuner from his contract was Johann Sebastian Bach grudgingly offered the job, a distant third choice. Volume-wise, Graupner’s output was on a par with his more famous contemporaries. Over 2,000 works survive in his catalog, compositions ranging from operas, sacred and secular cantatas, sinfonias, overtures, concertos for diverse instruments, sonatas, suites, partitas, and solo keyboard pieces.
So what happened? Lawyers are what happened. Disputes over ownership of Graupner’s manuscripts led to lengthy legal battles, during which time his music could not be published or sold. And by the time matters were settled, musical styles and tastes had moved on and Graupner had been forgotten. It’s a bit reminiscent of Dickens’s Bleak House. The legal machinations dragged on for so long that after a time, no one could even remember who had brought the case to court in the first place or what it was it about; and the little boy who was promised a new rocking horse when the case was finally settled grew up, “possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.”
Though there has been a recent mini upsurge of interest in Graupner’s music—this latest recording being an example—at this late date, and with so comparatively few of the composer’s works available on record or known to the concert-going public, it’s unlikely that Graupner is poised to become the next Bach, Telemann, or Handel. But not all neglect is due to underexposure. Heard on its own, Graupner’s music is ebullient and rhythmically animated in fast movements and sweetly chaste in slow movements—listen, for example to the Andante from the G-Major Sonata, GWV 707, with its pristine melody over a marching bass line—but when held up beside the music of his more famous contemporaries, it seems like Graupner was the runt of the litter who got the talent teat with the low-fat milk. Movements are short, and the instigating motivic material, which is not that pregnant to begin with, shows little potential for extension and development.
Monotony, at least in this program, is avoided by mixing works for various instruments in different combinations. Two types of flute are used, which the recording distinguishes as Blockflöte, or what we call in English a recorder, and simply flute, or what is taken to mean the more modern transverse flute. In either case, the instruments of this period would have been made of wood, metal flutes not coming into vogue much before 1810. The differences then between the recorder and the flute were not in the material they were made of but in how they were played and how they sounded. The recorder was played with the instrument held perpendicularly and blown through an aperture known as a fipple. The sound is whistle or pipe-like. The flute, or transverse flute, as its name suggests, is held horizontally from the mouthpiece or embouchure hole out to the right side of the body, and has a softer-grained bell-like sound.
Sabrina Frey switches seamlessly from one to the other, and is a masterful player on both. Joined by soloists Maurice Steger, Rodney Prada, Markus Bernhard, and by the one-to-a-part string and harpsichord Ars Musica Zürich Ensemble, Frey provides over an hour’s worth of highly entertaining music in well-gauged, topnotch performances, of which the G-Minor Sonata canonica for two recorders, viola da gamba, and continuo is claimed to be a world premiere recording. And the Berlin Classics CD, recorded in Zürich’s Neumünster Church in May 2008, captures a perfect ambiance for these works. Fairly modest music, but a more than modest effort on its behalf, this release is recommended.