Graun: Weihnachtsoratorium – A Christmas Oratorio to rival 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

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