Carl Heinrich Graun (1703-59) was court composer during the reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He had a very thorough early musical education, and became known throughout many countries for his abilities as a singer. During a sojourn in Berlin he perfected his abilities as an opera composer, completing around 27 during a 15-year period (only one is currently available: Cleopatra and Caesar). He was very active in the musical styles and issues of the day, and actively corresponded with notable composers about the current and future state of the art.
The Te Deum originated in the Latin west, and while its origins are a little cloudy, tradition has it that it was spontaneously chanted by Sts. Ambrose and Augustine upon the completion of the baptism of the latter by the former. This fourth-century liturgical masterpiece has often been used at celebratory occasions in the West and East, its opening lines “We praise Thee, O God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord” eminently suited to (in some cases) gargantuan forces exploding with many joyful noises. One only needs to think of Anton Bruckner to see how far this concept has been taken. In Graun’s day it was no less so, though the forces had not reached the cosmic proportions they would as the twentieth century approached.
But even though the May 6, 1757 defeat of the Austrians by the Prussians was the impetus for Graun’s creation, he approached the work in a much simpler, even pietistic manner. Gone are all of the louder, noisome instruments that so often added punch and excitement to these settings; instead we have two flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and strings with continuo in what must be regarded as a quietly devout celebration of an important military victory. No cannon here, but plenty of wonderful choral writing that seems to predate much of what Mozart would be doing in just a few years. The music falls easily on the ears, inventive, suitably written for the voices without any stretching, and nicely integrated with the not unimportant orchestral part. This is a lovely work, extremely pleasant to hear, and well worth anyone’s time who enjoys classical period liturgical music.
The Three Motets are in many ways even more enjoyable. Graun’s writing simple eats up the voices in a way that makes the music seem composed on the spot. Again, there is no struggle with the music here as everything falls naturally well within the usual confines of each vocal range. And the emotional tenor of the music is well-fitted to the various biblical texts used.
The performers seem as enamored of this music as I was, and respond accordingly. No period instrument strife here, but effectively realized presentations of each work. The singers especially are to be congratulated, and the soloists, with the exception of a slightly undernourished tenor, are excellent. CPO gives us very rounded, spacious 5.0 surround sound that well captures the classical ambiance.
— Steven Ritter