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Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756-1792)
Amphitryon, Secular Cantatas, Symphonies and Chamber Music
Simone Kermes (soprano), Chantal Santon (soprano), Georg Poplutz (tenor)
Bonner Kammerchor
Martin Sandhoff (flute)
Schuppanzigh Quartett
Concerto Köln
L’Arte del Mondo/Werner Ehrnardt
rec. 1991-2007
CAPRICCIO C7325 [5 CDs: 354 mins]

Joseph Martin Kraus has been a much neglected composer. When I gave a disc with his symphonies (the fourth in this set) to a friend and fellow MusicWeb reviewer, he admitted to not having heard of him; he was quite taken with the music on first listening. This box is an ideal introduction to Kraus’s music: theatre music, secular cantatas, symphonies and chamber pieces all have something of interest about them.

Kraus, known as the “Swedish Mozart”, was actually born in Miltenberg am Main in Bavaria, Germany, and only moved to Sweden when he was twenty-one. Here he was eventually employed at the royal court of King Gustav III. His big break came with the opera Proserpin, for which the King had written the libretto. After this success, Kraus was appointed vice-Kapellmeister of the Royal Swedish Opera and director of the Royal Academy of Music. Despite this appointment, he was sent on a musical ‘Grande Tour’ through Germany, England, France and Italy at the King’s expense. He met his idol Gluck, as well as Joseph Haydn and Mozart, all of whom can be seen to have been an influence.

All works presented here are attractive. The first disc contains music for Molière’s play Amphitryon, a colourful tale which gets a colourful treatment. There are four Intermèdes of various lengths, and a concluding, unusually long Divertissement. The work is French in flavour – the pieces would not seem out of step with a traditional French dance suite. There are ballet movements, movements for solo voices, and a handful of choral numbers. The soloists, Chantal Santon and Georg Poplutz, are both in fine form, as are the Bonner Kammerchor. The live production comes across very well indeed. The second disc brings vocal music, four secular cantatas interspersed with orchestral music from Kraus’s opera Olympie. This is a wonderful disc of four dramatic works. La Primavera is a real dramatic showpiece, something which Simone Kermes exploits to the full. Her full-bodied performance brings the colourful text and music to the fore. It is a shame that no texts are provided, as this wold help to get to the heart of Pietro Metastasio’s texts for the cantatas. Still, these bold and exciting works, as the booklet states, would bear “comparison with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”.

The two discs of symphonies are outshine the recordings by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Petter Sundkvist for Naxos (8.553734). I still prefer the sparkling reading by Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Anthony Halstead for Musica Sveciae (MSCD419), but these recordings are not far behind. This also is a more complete survey: eight of the dozen or so surviving symphonies, all of them typical of the eighteenth-century grand symphonic style. The first disc of symphonies is notable for the inclusion of the Symphonia da Chiesa. The Symphony in C VB 138 stands out for its inclusion of the Violino Obligato, especially in the lively final Allegro. The Symphonie Funèbre, with its sombre outlook, is also very fine, perhaps Kraus’s most dramatic symphonic work. The second disc is blessed with a symphony that Kraus dedicated to Haydn. Scholars are not too sure if it was the Symphony in D major VB 143 or the Symphony in C minor VB 142; this disc contains both. The C minor is certainly in keeping with the symphonies of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period. It has come to be one of the composer’s best-known works. It is noteworthy for two things: the slow introduction, a homage to Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Aulide, and the fact that it was originally composed in C sharp minor. It is one of only two symphonies in that key to be composed in the eighteenth century, and it was revised to the more manageable key for the ease of playing. It must be pointed out that the performers for all the symphonies are the Concerto Köln, not L’Arte del Mondo as written in the booklet.

I have already known the final disc, with chamber pieces. The Flute Quintet dates from 1783, during the composer’s time in Vienna, and is a lovely well-balanced work. The flute is not afforded a position of solo instrument. Rather, the music is composed in the form of a dialogue between all the instrumentalists. The result is a quite charming work, with a particularly fine, and at times, dramatic central Largo. The disc also contains two of the composer’s six opus 1 String Quartets; as far as I can find out, the Quartet No. 1 has never been recorded. I have two discs of Kraus’s quartets. The Lysell Quartet offers numbers 2, 4, 5 and 6 (Musica Sveciae MSCD 414); the C Major Quartet No. 5 is played on original instruments. The Salagon Quartett play numbers 2, 3 and 6, along with two quartets without opus, one in C minor, the other in E Major (Carus 83.194); here period instruments and performing practice seems to be used throughout. I find the Schuppanzigh Quartett slightly lacking when it comes to comparison with the Lysell Quartet, and especially with the period performance of the Salagon Quartett. This is music full of colour and eighteenth-century sensibilities. Although performed really well here, it just lacks that little something extra that you get from the Salagon’s reading.

This is a most valuable set, which should improve the standing of Joseph Martin Kraus. Throughout, this box is blessed with at least very good performances. The discs with Amphitryon and the Secular Cantatas show just what an important composer he is. This box really is an ideal introduction to Kraus’s music; only his operatic works and instrumental music are missing, but one gets a feel of his operatic credentials in the dramatic works on disc 2. This set will appeal to the lovers of eighteenth-century repertoire. There are passages which compare well with the musical luminaries of that period, whilst showing a great deal of originality and panache.

The recorded sound, very good throughout, helps to bring out the character and colour of the music well. This is helped by the pleasing acoustics. The set fails slightly in the production of the too-short booklet notes. Kraus and each of the works are discussed, but I believe more detail would have been of benefit to the listener. No sung texts are provided, something which I have always felt essential when encountering new works for the first time. I am not sure whether they were available in the original releases. If so, surely a link to the texts on-line could have been made available. Gripes about the booklet aside, this wonderful, entertaining set should win some new converts for Joseph Martin Kraus and his music.

Stuart Sillitoe

Disc 1
Amphitryon - Incidental Music [77:37]
Disc 2
Secular Cantatas
Olympie, VB 33 - Overture [6:58]
La Gelosia (1780) VB 46 [17:22]
Olympie, VB 33 - No. 4, Musik zwischen Akt III und IV [2:25]
La Primavera (1790) VB 47 [19:38]
Olympie, VB 33 - No. 6, Musik nach Akt V [1:50]
La Scusa (1777) VB 43 [13:29]
Olympie, VB 33 - No. 5, Musik zwischen Akt IV und V [2:48]
La Pesca (1779) VB 44 [11:52]
Disc 3
Symphony in D major “Sinfonia da chiesa” [9:09]
Symphony in C sharp minor, VB 140 [19:39]
Symphony in C major, VB 138, "Violin obligato" [21:04]
Symphony in C minor, VB 148 “Symphonie funébre” [20:41]
Disc 4
Symphony in C minor, VB 142 [20:20]
Symphony in E flat major, VB 144 [20:25]
Symphony in C major, VB 139 [12:53]
Symphony in D major, VB 143 [18:27]
Disc 5
Flute Quintet in D major [26:55]
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 1 No. 3 [10:49]
String Quartet in D major, Op. 1 No. 4 [20:17]

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