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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756-1792)
"Complete Piano Music"

Rondo in F (VB 191) [09:00]
Sonata in E flat (VB 195) [19:52]
Scherzo con variazioni (VB 193) [11:59]
Larghetto (VB 194) [00:42]
Sonata in E (VB 196) [32:07]
Swedish Dance (VB 192) [03:47]
Zwei neue kuriose Minuetten (VB 190) [01:51]
Jacques Després, piano (Steinway)
Recorded in October 2000 in Convocation Hall, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada DDD
NAXOS 8.555771 [79:19]


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Joseph Martin Kraus was a man of many talents. He received a broad education, not only in music, but also in law, jurisprudence and philosophy. In the 1770s he published a collection of poems and later became acquainted with a ‘Sturm und Drang’ literary circle in Göttingen. In 1778 he accompanied a Swedish student to Stockholm and then tried to establish himself as a composer.

It wasn’t easy to obtain an official position. He was active as a conductor and writer about music. In the 1780’s he began to see some success, as he was elected as member of the Royal Academy of Music. In 1782 King Gustavus III sent him on a Grand Tour through Europe, which brought him to Germany, Austria, Italy, France and England. Famous colleagues, like Haydn and Gluck, held him in high esteem. Kraus himself declared his admiration for Gluck as well as Grétry.

Today Kraus is mainly known for his symphonies; some of his chamber music and a couple of dramatic works have also been recorded.

This is the first recording of Kraus’s complete keyboard works. He wasn’t a professional keyboard player, which may explain the rather small output in this genre. It is known, however, that some keyboard works have been lost.

The keyboard pieces are quite different in character. "His overriding compositional premise was the infusion of drama into all genres of music, a notion that stems from his contact with the literary ‘Sturm und Drang’ ", writes Kraus scholar Bertil van Boer in the article on Kraus in the New Grove (he also wrote the liner notes in the booklet). That sense of drama is most obvious in the two sonatas. The fast movements are bold and imaginative and harmonically often surprising, whereas in the adagio of the Sonata in E we meet the influence of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the ‘Empfindsamkeit’.

Themes with variations were very popular in the second half of the 18th century, and Kraus seems to have liked them particularly: not only the Scherzo con variazioni, but also the opening Rondo in F and the Swedish Dance belong to that genre. And both sonatas contain an ‘andante con variazione’.

Quite peculiar are the ‘Zwei kuriose Minuetten’ which close the recording. "According to the sole source, it was written in 1780 as a musical joke and sent to J. S. Bach’s biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, with whom Kraus had debated the merits of early music when he was in Göttingen" (Bertil van Boer in the liner notes). The first menuet is a parody of a menuet from the ‘Notenbüchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach’. The second one contains deliberate compositional errors to portray an incompetent composer.

This is a very interesting recording, but unfortunately it is a missed opportunity as far as the interpretation is concerned: the wrong instrument is used. A modern concert grand is not the right tool to reveal the true character of Kraus’s keyboard music.

One of the problems is dynamics. In some pieces – the Rondo, for instance - Després holds back the dynamic contrasts the music requires. As a result these pieces become banal and superficial. In the sonatas he uses the full dynamic possibilities of the instrument, but here it sounds overdone and exaggerated.

The balance between the voices is not ideal. In the Swedish Dance, for example, the repeated motifs in the left hand are often overpowered by the right hand. In particular in the adagio from the Sonata in E the lack of subtlety of the piano is almost painful: the sensitive character of this movement, with its many unexpected twists and turns, goes out the window in this performance.

The range of colouring of the fortepiano would have been very useful to differentiate between the four sections of the Rondo in F. The strange thing is that, according to the booklet, Jacques Desprès is experienced in playing the fortepiano. Then why did he choose an instrument which fits in badly with the music?

Johan van Veen

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