Carl Heinrich Graun: Easter Oratorio / Kölner Akademie, Willens

Carl Heinrich Graun (1703-1759) is another enormously gifted composer whose music has been thoroughly eclipsed by that of great and like-sounding contemporaries. In Graun’s case, it’s Bach and Handel. Best known in his day as a composer of opera, Graun also produced a relatively large body of sacred music. While several of his operas are occasionally recorded and performed, he may have a better foothold on a place in music history for his sacred works. This new release from cpo brings us the world premiere recording of Graun’s Easter Oratorio performed by the Kölner Akademie orchestra and chorus under the direction of Michael Alexander Willens.

Carl Heinrich Graun was appointed Director of the Berlin Royal Opera by his employer Frederick the Great and wrote twenty-six operas for the house during his tenure. Together with Johann Adolph Hasse, he was the most important composer of Italian opera in mid-eighteenth century Germany. The primary work however that lent staying power to his name is his passion cantata Der Tod Jesu of 1755 which, like Handel’s Messiah in England, was performed annually in Germany during Holy Week up through the end of the nineteenth century.

Writing at the crossroads of baroque and pre-classical Germany, Graun’s music reflects a combination of old and new concepts. Listen to how he uses various instrumental combinations to produce interesting and contrasting colors for example. His arias are especially effective, in part because he provides a fresh instrumental backdrop for each one. In one instance its two bassoons, in another, a duo of horns, and for a more festive declamation, a pair of trumpets.

The music is beautiful and certainly deserves a very wide audience, but it is just as imperative to hear this for the splendid performance! A small ensemble, the Kölner Akademie consists of about a dozen strings in all, and one voice to a part in the choir. Orchestra, chorus and soloists are evenly superb, performing with an extraordinary uniformity of color and expression. The result is a clarity and fine-grained texture that allows us to hear Graun’s music in the best possible light, and cpo has engineered the remarkably realistic sound-space that the performance deserves.

Maestro Willens graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions regarding this recording. You can click on the Interview tab above to read that brief interview.

Album Overview

Festive Graun Recording

The success story of the passion cantata Der Tod Jesu is without its equal in the music history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and gradually obscured the rest of the composer Carl Heinrich Graun’s extensive vocal and instrumental oeuvre. His Easter Oratorio, which cpo is now releasing as a recording premiere in an interpretation on historical instruments by the Kölner Akademie under the conductor Michael Alexander Willens, unfortunately suffered the same fate. The music is extremely imaginative and festive and displays a musical affinity to Bach’s cantata oeuvre. Each of the four cantatas forming the oratorio begins with a grand opening chorus assuming absolutely royal splendor owing to its employment of three natural trumpets. Recitatives and arias for bass, tenor, and soprano alternate, and each cantata ends with a chorale. The more complex, more finely crafted melodic formation in the Easter Oratorio stands out significantly from the moving simplicity of Graun’s later works. In this respect as well by virtue of its colorful instrumentation, the Easter Oratorio is very much like the Christmas Oratorio and the “Grand Passion” Kommt her und schaut. A magnificent discovery!


Composer: Carl Heinrich Graun

Carl Heinrich Graun (1704 – 1759) was a German composer and tenor singer. Along with Johann Adolph Hasse, he is considered to be the most important German composer of Italian opera of his time. Graun wrote a number of operas. His opera Cesare e Cleopatra inaugurated the opening of the Berlin State Opera (Königliche Hofoper) in 1742. Montezuma (1755) was written to a libretto by King Frederick.

Conductor: Michael Alexander Willens

Michael Alexander Willens received B.M and M.M degrees at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied conducting with John Nelson. He has also studied with Jacques-Louis Monod, Harold Farberman, Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, and choral conducting with Paul Vorwerk.

Performers:  Die Kölner Akademie (The Cologne Academy)

Die Kölner Akademie – Orchester Damals und Heute is a unique ensemble based in Cologne which performs music of the seventeenth through the twenty first centuries on  both modern and period instruments with world renowned guest soloists. The ensemble seeks to bring out the composers’ intentions by using historical seating plans, critical editions and the proper instrumentation for each work.

Soprano: Nina Koufochristou

Alto: Dagmar Saskova

Tenor: Jan Kobow

Berlin native and tenor Jan Kobow has been a recognized figure in the music world since winning first prize in the 1998 Leipzig Bach Competition. He has established an international reputation as a Baroque vocal musician and has been invited to perform worldwide

Bass: Andreas Wolf

The young German Bass-Baritone Andreas Wolf, received his first musical education at the special school for music Wernigerode, Germany and was also a member of the renowned youth choir “Rundfunk-Jugendchor Wernigerode”.


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