, December 2002
These performances are perfect — original instrument and original performance practice informed, but smoothly, richly, and gracefully played. The recording conveys the sound of strings, winds and brass well in balance and clearly delineated in just the right acoustic environment. After hearing this recording one will be looking for other music performed by these artists, as well as other music by Kraus.
For most of us the name Joseph Kraus will be completely new. He was born in the same year as Mozart in Miltenburg am Main in central Germany. His early musical education was in Buchen im Odenwald, and from 1768 to 1773 he studied at Mannheim and published a collection of poems. From 1773 he studied philosophy and law, and published a drama and two oratorios, Die Gerburt Jesu and Der Tod Jesu. In 1778 he was in Göttingen mixing with a Sturm und Drang literary circle, publishing a treatise on music; then he was persuaded by a fellow student to devote his life to music and to seek his fortunes in Sweden at the court of Gustav III. This didn’t work out well at first, but eventually he was given a sort of test, a trial commission, and his cantata on a royal text, Proserpina, finally earned him a court appointment as deputy Kapellmeister in 1781. He was then sent on a grand tour of Europe and England at the King’s expense to catch up on the latest happenings.
On this tour he became acquainted with Haydn, Gluck (both of whom praised his abilities richly) and Handel. Kraus’s works were performed and published in major cities. When he returned to Sweden he finally achieved the celebrity he deserved being appointed chief educational administrator of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music and being promoted to chief Kapellmeister. He was also very active in the literary life of Stockholm. But then monumental bad luck struck him; his patron, Gustav III was assassinated at a masked ball (see the Verdi opera for details) and nine months later Kraus died less than a year after Mozart, of tuberculosis.
One asks: if he was any good why haven’t we ever heard of him before? The answer is, yes, he was very good, and the music publishing situation in Europe at that time is responsible for his undeserved oblivion.
Today we revere the individual creator and cannot imagine deliberately ascribing works to the wrong author, but in those days information was unreliable and the most important thing was selling (are we any better off now?). When Kraus died and could no longer show up in person and conduct his works to publicise them, he was no longer news. And since his royal patron had been deposed, he may have been politically undesirable as well. His symphonies in the press were hastily reascribed to some other still active composer like Franz Joseph Haydn, or Cambini. Similarly, Pergolesi died young while there was still a demand for his music, so sonatas by Wassenaer were published as his. G. M. Monn died young while he was the darling of Vienna for his concertos and religious vocal music. A musicologist friend who is a Monn specialist says the published symphonies ascribed to him are probably not by Monn - the style is all wrong. Yet on the basis of those works, Monn is widely credited as one of the originators of symphonic form!
Busy musicologist detectives continue to try to sort out all this mess, and one result is the discovery of this wonderful series of works. Kraus is known to have written very many symphonies, yet only 14 have so far been identified. Perhaps most of the rest were sent to the Dresden library for safe keeping.
That Kraus’s works were for some time thought to be by Haydn is indicative of how good they are,. They are rigorously structured with learned fugal episodes more in the style of the best of Franz Xavier Richter. These performances are perfect — original instrument and original performance practice informed, but smoothly, richly, and gracefully played. No annoying pertness or scrappiness. The recording conveys the sound of strings, winds and brass well in balance and clearly delineated in just the right acoustic environment. After hearing this recording one will be looking for other music performed by these artists, as well as other music by Kraus.
Coming into the series at Volume 4, with no opportunity to hear the other volumes, is something of a disadvantage to a commentator, but these works make wonderful listening. The variety of forms presented here is welcome — three Haydnesque symphonies, a "Sinfonia per la Chiesa" with a neat fugue, finishing with a regal ceremonial march — one that would be a credit to a Mozart opera.