These two discs shed light on an interesting and important aspect of music history: the development of the baroque trio sonata to the sonata with obbligato keyboard. It is demonstrated here with trios from the pen of the Graun brothers. They played a leading role in German music life in the mid-18th century.
The names of the two brothers appear on the title pages of both discs. The reason is that by and large we do not which of them wrote which work. Apparently their handwriting is not known: their music has only been preserved in copies. Most pieces are signed with di Graun
or del Sig.re Graun
. Johann Gottlieb was a celebrated violinist and composed mostly instrumental music, whereas Carl Heinrich was successful as a tenor and wrote a large number of operas, cantatas and sacred music. Even so, it would be wrong to suggest that all the instrumental works were written by Johann Gottlieb. The numbers (GraunWV) refer to a catalogue of the oeuvre of the Grauns, put together by Christoph Henzel. He made a clear distinction between pieces which can be attributed to Johann Gottlieb (A), Carl Heinrich (B) or one of them (C). The small letter "v" indicates that the attribution is not 100 percent sure.
The fact that many of their trios are available in a pretty large number of sources bears witness to their popularity. Almost none of them were ever printed in their lifetime. It was mostly music for the growing amateur market which was published, and the trios by the Graun brothers were technically too demanding to be suitable for non-professional players. The first disc includes five trios for two violins and bc. As the original manuscripts have not been preserved it is impossible to say when they were written. However, the copies can sometimes be dated and that gives at least some indication as to date of composition. The disc opens with the Trio in A
which is available in a copy from around 1730. Even if that was not known its texture is traditional baroque: it has three movements in the order: fast - slow - fast. This was quite common at that time, reflecting the form of the Italian solo concerto. The ensuing Trio in D
must have been written not later than 1750. It is also traditional in that it follows the structure of the Corellian sonata da chiesa
. The three other trios are more modern and have the order of movements which was to become the standard in the mid-18th century: slow - fast - fast. The slow movements in these trios are particularly expressive. A good example is the affettuoso
from the Trio in D
(GraunWV Cv:XV,100). It is in the fast movements that these trios show their adherence to the German counterpoint tradition. The mixture of traditional and modern elements is one of the features of the instrumental music of the Graun brothers. Some of these fast movements are highly virtuosic.
The second disc includes four trios for a melody instrument and obbligato keyboard. This was to become the standard in the last quarter of the 18th century, when many sonatas for keyboard and a melody instrument were written. However, these trios by the Grauns are different from, for instance, the sonatas for keyboard and violin by Mozart or even the piano trios by Haydn. Most of these are adaptations of sonatas which were originally written for two instruments and basso continuo. That has left its mark in the fact that the keyboard is not as dominant here as in the sonatas or trios from the late 18th century. In that repertoire by and large the melody instruments don't have a very virtuosic part to play. That is not the case here: the violin parts are no less demanding than in the trios of the first disc. Some trios were conceived as sonatas for a melody instrument - mostly a violin - and keyboard, but even those exist in alternative versions for two instruments and basso continuo. Especially interesting in this regard is the Trio in B flat
which is scored for viola and obbligato keyboard. However, the right hand of the keyboard part has the addition "violin", which indicates that this trio can be played as a 'traditional' trio sonata as well. The fact that this trio is scored for viola is another notable aspect as this was an instrument which was to become more important during the mid-18th century.
The Grauns don't appear very often on concert programmes. It is to be hoped that this will change, because these two discs include some of the best chamber music written in the mid-18th century. For players these pieces are highly rewarding. They are technically challenging, but also musically very satisfying, and full of expression. This very fine repertoire receives outstanding performances. The playing of the violinists and violist is brilliant, and the pathos of the slow movements is fully explored. The choice of keyboard is questionable in some cases. Ludger Rémy argues that the fortepiano was quite common at a relatively early time in Berlin where the Grauns worked. It would be different if this music had been written for amateurs. Among those the fortepiano was probably very rare until the last quarter of the century. Even so, the trios which very likely date from the 1730s would probably have been better served by a harpsichord.
However, this is a small detail which doesn't reduce the value of these two recordings. These two discs are highly important and make one understand why the Graun brothers were such celebrities in their time.
Johan van Veen
See also review of 777423-2 by Glyn Pursglove