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Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756 - 1792)
Arias and Overtures
Monica Groop (mezzo)
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra/Aapo Häkkinen
rec. 2013, Sello Hall, Espoo, Finland. DDD
Texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.572865 [62:47]

Until the 18th century music culture in Sweden was dominated by composers of foreign origin. Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758) was the first important native composer. Other lesser known figures were active in other parts of Europe, such as Johan Joachim Agrell. The main name in Swedish music life in the second half of the 18th century was that of Joseph Martin Kraus. The programme of the present disc reflects the various stages of his career.

Parvum quando cerno Deum dates from 1776 and was written in Buchen where Kraus received his earliest musical education. It is a kind of lullaby for Christmastide on a text from a collection of the 12th century. It has an extended dacapo structure: ABACA. It includes an obbligato part for violin. In this recording the two clarinet parts are played by alto oboes "to emphasize the pastoral nature of the text". Why didn't Kraus think of that? Probably because he thought that clarinets were perfectly suited to do the job. What gives today's performers the idea that they know better?

In 1778 a Swedish student persuaded Kraus to accompany him to Stockholm and try to enter the service of King Gustavus III. He didn't have immediate success; for three years he lived in poverty. In 1781 he was elected to the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. It was his first opera, Proserpin, which brought him the position of assistant kapellmästare at the royal court and the Royal Opera. The programme fittingly opens with the overture to this opera. It begins with a slow section with an oboe soaring over a body of strings; this is followed by a dramatic fast section.

In 1782 Gustavus sent Kraus on a study journey throughout Europe to pick up the latest trends in music, and especially music for the theatre. He visited various cities, such as Vienna, Rome, Naples, Paris and London. In Vienna he met Haydn who was full of praise for his younger colleague. He even called him one of two geniuses he knew; the other one was Mozart. In 1782 he visited Wismar, then a Swedish province, and there he was asked by some literati to set a text in honour of Gustavus III to music. The programme includes the overture to this birthday cantata (Zum Geburtstage des Könings Gustav III.). In the fast section trumpets play an important role.

Early in 1784 Kraus visited Paris. Here he composed his only work on a French text, Du temps, qui détruit tout, originally scored for tenor. In his liner-notes Kraus scholar Bertil van Boer, who also catalogued his oeuvre, suggests that the text could be connected to the opéra comique. The voice is accompanied by strings; here a transverse flute has been added, and once again I don't see the need.

In Paris or in London Kraus may have become acquainted with the operatic output of Johann Christian Bach. Sentimi, non partir! - Al mio bene is a pair of recitative and rondo which Bach composed in 1778 for the castrato Fernando Tenducci. It was arranged by Kraus and in this form was probably performed as a concert piece by a tenor or a mezzo-soprano in a public concert in Stockholm after his return. Kraus' arrangement is rather modest as he kept the largest part of the original scoring intact. Ma tu tremi and Ch'io mai vi possa are also concert arias, both on texts by the then most famous librettist in Europe, Pietro Metastasio. The former is from the cantata La Tempesta, the other from the opera libretto Siroè.

This disc includes two short arias on Swedish texts. These were written to be inserted in spoken comedies. Both were later published independently as songs for voice and keyboard. As the originals have been lost, Bertil van Boer has reconstructed them for this recording. They date from 1787 and 1789 respectively. In 1790 Kraus was one of seven composers who were asked to write the music for a play by Johan Magnus Lannerstierna. He composed the overture to Äfventyraren recorded here. A sequence of repeated notes in the oboe are a returning phrase in this piece, marking the transition from one section to another. This overture is followed attacca by the opening chorus. For this recording a new ending had to be constructed on the basis of material from contemporary sources.

Gustavus III and Kraus were pretty close: this explains the character of the funeral music for the King which he wrote when he was killed in March 1792. This work reflects the deeply-felt sorrow of Kraus and the overture sets the tone. (The whole work was recorded recently by Werner Ehrhardt; review). Kraus' connection with the court ended soon: in December of that same year he himself also died.

Kraus's oeuvre is not that large, and part of it has been lost. Even so, there are several works which have never been recorded. This disc includes no fewer than six world première recordings. That alone makes it a worthwhile addition to the discography. It impressively underlines the quality of Kraus' oeuvre and makes one understand why he was held in high esteem by Haydn and other composers. The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra delivers outstanding performances of the orchestral works and the instrumental scores of the vocal items. Monica Groop is a well-known singer but seems not to play a major role in the early music scene. I haven't heard her for years and I have never reviewd any disc with her participating. She has a nice voice which is suited to the repertoire which is performed here. She uses a little too much vibrato but it is by no means as bad as that experienced in other recordings I have reviewed recently. Moreover, one vibrato is not like the other: hers is not very wide, and it is not the sort of fast vibrato which gets on one's nerves. Because of that I appreciate her interpretations of the vocal items. They are beautifully sung and the balance between voice and orchestra is just right.

All in all I rate this disc positively, firstly because of the quality of Kraus' music and the number of first recordings, then because of the interpretations, despite some issues in regard to scoring and singing.

Johan van Veen

Track listing
Overture Proserpin (VB 19) [8:19]
Du i hvars oskuldsfulla blick (VB 30) [2:02]
Ma tu tremi (VB 63) [3:17]
Ch'io mai vi possa (VB 59) [4:03]
Overture Zum Geburtstage des Königs Gustav III. (VB 41) [8:54]
Parvum quando cerno Deum (VB 5) [7:43]
Overture Äfventyraren (VB 32) [10:30]
Du temps, qui détruit tout (VB 58) [2:25]
Sentimi, non partir! - Al mio bene, rec & rondo (VB 55) [7:05]
Overture Konung Gustav III Begrafnings-kantat (VB 42) [6:20]
Hör mina ömma suckar klaga (VB 26) [1:45]



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