Carl Heinrich Graun isn’t exactly a household name today but he was court composer to the extremely musical Frederick the Great who was fond of both his flute and the opera when he wasn’t too busy being beastly to the Austrians. Anyway, Graun composed a ton of opera and based on the arias on this disk it’s surprising that they are almost completely neglected. The only Graun opera I have seen is Montezuma which got a video recording in Bayreuth about thirty five years ago so I was quite keen to see what else he had done.
Last night Philippe Jaroussky appeared with Les Violins du Roy and conductor Matthieu Lussier in a mostly Handel program at Koerner Hall. It was a very good evening. Les Violons du Roy is a pretty small band; less than twenty including continuo, but they manage to produce quite a big sound while remaining elegant and flexible in a thoroughly idiomatic baroque way. The instrumental component consisted of a Handel overture, Fux’ Ouverture in D minor and Johann Gottlieb Graun’s (not the better known Carl Graun who was apparently his brother) Symphony in B Flat Major. It was a pretty good sampling of what one might have heard in the courts of Germany in the early 1700s and rather enjoyable.
Berlin based Canadian countertenor Michael Taylor’s album To Die, to Sleep is a collection of baroque arias recorded with the Quebec baroque chamber ensemble The Dansant. The 15 arias are drawn from assorted Handel operas, mostly Orlando, from Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso and Graun’s Montezuma (the Frederick the Great opera). There are also some instrumental tracks with short pieces by de Murcia, Handel and Gabrielli. As you might guess from the title the material is more contemplative than bravura which might disappoint the fireworks fans but makes for very pleasant, relaxed listening. Mr. Taylor has a distinctly full sound for a countertenor and is clearly very much at home in this repertoire. The accompaniment, on period instruments is interesting and tasteful. It’s worth a listen. It’s available on iTunes (C$9.99) or from countertaylor.com.
There have been over thirty operas dealing with Montezuma, last emperor of the Aztecs from Vivaldi in 1733 to Bernhard Lang in 2010. The second such premiered in 1755 and was rather remarkable. The idea originated with Frederick II of Prussia who decided to fit in an opera before his next war against the Austrians. He wrote a French prose libretto which was turned into an Italian text by his court poet Giampietro Tagliazucchi and then set by his court composer Carl Heinrich Graun. It’s pretty clear that Frederick identied himself with the idealized enlightened monarch Montezuma, the ultimate noble savage, and his betrayal by forces loyal to the Habsburgs and Catholoicism. The ideas earlier expressed in Anti-Machiavel are very much to the fore as are Frederick’s own rather odd ideas on fate and his own mortality(1). Basically this Montezuma is deposed and executed and his world goes up in flames.