, March 2008
The Naxos series celebrating the music of Joseph Martin Kraus is one of the glories of the partnership between Allan Badley’s Artaria Editions and Klaus Heymann’s innovative label. Born in the same year as Mozart and dying only a year after his more famous contemporary, Kraus was an original and exciting composer, whose talent was recognised by Gluck and Haydn: the latter referred to him as one of the only two geniuses he knew, the other being Mozart.
The four Naxos discs of Kraus’s surviving symphonies (see review of Vol.4 in that series) are compulsory acquisitions for anyone with an interest in the music of the Classical period. They show Kraus at his most daring, a composer whose Sturm und Drang vibrancy rivals that of Haydn.
These two new discs, both useful additions to the Kraus discography, reveal a softer side of Kraus. They showcase his talent as a composer for the stage and demonstrate that this master of drama and innovation could also write music to soothe and cheer.
The first of these discs opens with the world premiere recording of Kraus’ violin concerto in C major, alongside first recordings of some of his incidental music and scraps of ballet. Kraus the performer was a violinist first and keyboard player second—the opposite of Mozart. While comparisons with Mozart’s violin concertos are inevitable, Kraus’s concerto is stylistically very different.
The first movement is broad and beautiful and comes across as the opening movement of a symphony with violin solo rather than of a violin concerto proper. Certainly its length—greater than that of the remaining movements together—gives Kraus ample space for full symphonic development. There is little combat between soloist and orchestra here. The violin’s contribution is lyrical, even when Kraus demands the soloist’s utmost virtuosity as he explores the violin’s technical capabilities. The slow movement has a wonderful singing quality, with the violin dipping and soaring in long languid lines above a responsive, pellucid base of strings. The slim winds and brass having nothing to contribute here. The finale is a lightly dancing rondo of understated virtuosity. A composer of Kraus’s Sturm und Drang credentials and recognized skill as a violinist may have been expected to finish off a violin concerto with fireworks, and sure enough the liner notes disclose that the concerto’s original finale was a pacy scherzo. Why Krause replaced that finale with this gentler one is a matter of conjecture. In any case, it feels of a piece with the rest of the concerto.
Takako Nishizaki plays the concerto with grace and expression. She is up to Kraus’ challenges and is able to conquer them unobtrusively, letting the music sing. She receives warm support from the trimmed down New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Uwe Grodd.
The incidental music to the tragedy Olympie is remarkable for its superb overture. Its broad, brooding introduction foreshadows Beethoven’s Egmont—though it is doubtful that Beethoven would ever have heard it—and the allegro is dynamically exciting and crackles with energy. This is the overture’s second recording on Naxos. It first appeared on Naxos’s first disc of the Kraus symphonies (8.553734). As much as I admire Grodd and his New Zealanders for their genial warmth of sound, I prefer Petter Sundkvist and his Swedish Chamber Orchestra in this music for the greater bite of their attack and the excitement they whip up.
The rest of the incidental music consists of a march, four entr’actes and a postlude. The march and first interlude feature some delightful bassoon and clarinet interplay, but the third and fourth entr’actes are the highlights. The former is a beguiling courtly dance, languidly shaped by Grodd and the NZSO; the latter is a proud minuet spiced with touches of the minor mode. The attractive postlude returns to the atmosphere of brooding tragedy evoked in the overture.
The scraps of ballet music from Azire that close the disc are all that remains of Kraus’s first work for the stage. It is light and charming music, sparkling in its scoring and changes of meter and played with obvious enjoyment by the NZSO.
If Kraus’ incidental music tickles your fancy, you may want to seek out the disc of his ballet music. It is unfailingly well crafted, tuneful and charming.
The two Pantomimes are simply structured but full of imaginative touches and hustling violin figurations. They are essentially short sinfonias in the Italian style, though the second interrupts the usual three movement structure with a march movement. The Pantomime in D is particularly impressive, its central adagio a bucolic idyll that features lovely writing for solo oboe.
The main work here is Fiskarena—a stand-alone ballet score. This is not a Sturm und Drang score, but a charming and colourful work which alternates joyful allegros with charming adagios and andantes. A couple of “Anglaise” movements echo and quote a British hornpipe, and the ballet’s penultimate number dresses a folk-like Hungarian theme in delicate orchestration.
As a pendant, Naxos offers two charming snips of ballet music which Kraus, as principal conductor of the Stockholm Opera, composed for insertion into Gluck’s Armide to make the opera more appealing to Swedish audiences.
Throughout the programme, Sundkvist and his band play the music with flair.
Both discs are accompanied by learned booklet notes by Bertil van Boer, who also composed the cadenza for the violin concerto and reconstructed the Pantomime in G. His writing communicates his enthusiasm for Kraus’ music, and when that music is played as well as it is on these two discs, that enthusiasm is infectious.