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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Kraus wrote his ballet Fiskarena (The Fishermen) for the Royal Stockholm Opera. It includes a familiar hornpipe and its melodic flow is disarmingly attractive, 18th-century light music at its most appealing. The two Pantomimes are like miniature symphonies. All this music is elegantly played by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under its highly sympathetic conductor, Petter Sundkvist, and the recoding is up to the best Naxos Standard.

Derek Warby
MusicWeb International, August 2008

Joseph Martin Kraus was almost an exact contemporary of Mozart and has been dubbed ‘the Swedish Mozart’. He was born five months after Mozart on 20 June 1756 and died a year and ten days after the great composer on 15 December 1792. He was actually born in Miltenberg in Germany but moved to Stockholm in 1778 to work in the court of King Gustav III. I first came across Kraus thanks to the initial CD in the Naxos series dedicated to him [8.553734]. It contained the overture to Olympie and three rather remarkable symphonies which I came to love. Volumes 2 [8.554472] , 3 [8.554777] and 4 [8.555305] of the series followed without too protracted a delay and I was hooked. Why hadn’t I heard of Kraus before? Geography can sometimes act against such recognition and it didn’t help that several of Kraus’s symphonies had been misattributed to other composers for many years.

Like Haydn in Eszterháza, Kraus’s isolation from mainstream Europe caused him to develop along an original musical path. Some of his earlier music sounds a little like Stürm und Drang Haydn, while some of the last music has a Romantic style that makes one wish he had lived into the nineteenth century. Then we might have seen some fireworks! Kraus had a wonderful lyrical gift. Some of his melodies rival Mozart’s in their seeming endlessness – something one hears several times in the aforementioned symphonies.

So what of this issue? I was keen to hear it and discover some more of this remarkable composer’s work. The first thing to say is that this music is far lighter than many of the symphonies. This was written for the theatre, not for solemn occasions. The two Pantomimes which sandwich the main item on this disc, the ballet Fiskarena, were written while Kraus was still a young student in Mannheim and the circumstances surrounding their composition remain a mystery. Were one not to know the title, the first Pantomine in D might pass off quite comfortably as a three-movement sinfonia. It is attractive music but gives little away of what was to come, although the beautiful solo oboe writing in the Adagio already displays Kraus’s melodic talents. Bertil van Boer, editor of Kraus’s music (hence the ‘VB’ numbers) and writer of the excellent booklet notes, suggests that the Pantomine in G is an even earlier work than its D major counterpart. Its music is more four-square and the insertion of a short March between the first and slow movements gives this Pantomime more the character of a divertimento. The two movements Kraus composed for insertion into a 1787 Royal Stockholm Opera production of Gluck’s Armide are attractive trifles – pure ballet music.

The main fare on this CD is the dramatic ballet Fiskarena (The Fishermen). It was first staged on 9 March 1789 by the Royal Opera and won immediate popularity. The plot and choreography have long been lost and so any suggestions as to the goings-on in the Overture and twenty brief numbers that follow can only be educated guesses. This matters not a jot, however as the music is attractive enough to stand on its own, including two nautical hornpipe-like Angloises and a gipsy Ungherese just before the rousing Contradanza Finale.

This CD, then, reveals a lighter side to Kraus’s art than that in earlier instalments in this series. It is a side to which the composer was firmly committed in Stockholm and so it is important in the appreciation of Kraus’s work to have this illuminating disc.

As in earlier volumes of this Kraus series, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Petter Sundkvist play these works as if by second nature, revealing their delightful colours and intricacies. The recording matches the performances perfectly, with a natural and well-balanced acoustic that allows the music to speak entirely for itself.

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, 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.

American Record Guide, January 2008

You may know the German-born but essentially Swedish composer Joseph Martin Kraus from his symphonies—including the most recent Naxos survey—or from his deeply felt Funeral Cantata for his beloved patron King Gustav III (see our Index); yet his first love was the stage, and between the ballet and opera that occupied him for almost his entire life.

Aside from the opera Proserpina, perhaps his most important work for the stage is the ballet Fiskarena (The Fishermen), first presented at the Royal Opera in March 1789 when Kraus was 33. Clearly it benefitted from his four-year grand tour of continental Europe and England (at the King's expense) where he voraciously absorbed the latest in musical and theatrical trends from masters like Gluck and Haydn. To the dramatic devices of Gluck and Gretry Kraus added what he had learned about the Italian style while studying at Mannheim. The ballet was choreographed by Antoine Bournonville, whose son August is generally considered a seminal force in the development of the romantic ballet (Jan/Feb 2006, p 228). At 50:25 it forms the centerpiece of this splendid new release from Naxos that sheds a fresh and welcome light on the formative years of Scandinavian ballet.

Although Fiskarena was not only an immediate sensation with Stockholm audiences but (so the notes tell us) remained in the active repertory for over 40 years, neither Bournonville's choreography nor the plot of the ballet has survived to this day. Annotator Bertil van Boer has made an educated guess about the likely scenario, but we know it was derived from a comic opera by the Marquis de la Salle, Les Pêcheurs, staged in Stockholm under the title Skärgards Flickan (The Girl from the Skerries). There's not all that much of a plot to begin with, and what there is clearly betrays the origins of the ballet in French opéra comique.

An ambitious fisherman and his wife wish to marry off their daughter to a wealthy merchant, Ambrosius; she tearfully begs a sailor named Jack to help her purely out of desperation, but as you might expect it's love at first sight and Jack has an idea. A band of gypsies arrives and Jack conspires to lure Ambrosius into a compromising situation with a "gypsy girl" who is really one of his mates in disguise. Of course the fisherman and his wife are thoroughly appalled by this humiliating turn of events, and the young lovers ecstatically embrace as gypsies and townsfolk join in the general rejoicing.

But it is easy to set aside the plot and enjoy Kraus's buoyant and witty score without concern for what might be happening on stage. The lively Overture could be by Rossini, and much of what follows is as tuneful and inventive as anything by Adam or Delibes. High points include Kraus's use of the familiar 'Sailor's Hornpipe' for Jack and his friends (track 14, 'Angloise') and the czardas feel of the hearty gypsy dance near the close (track 23, 'Ungherese'), capped by a moto perpetuo 'Contradanza Finale' (track 24) whose triumphant coda clearly channels Mozart—most of all the exuberant Rondo from his Divertimento No. 11. We can see why the Stockholm audience at the premiere broke into applause and cries of 'Bravo!' and 'Hurrah'.

The two much earlier Pantomimes in G and D were probably written while Kraus was a student in Mannheim and follow the expected Italian "sinfonia" style save for a brief 'Tempi di Marcia' interpolated into the G major. Van Boer suggests both of them were occasional pieces for the improvisatory scenes performed by Kraus's fellow students for Carnival. Although brief, they're well-crafted and polished examples that foreshadow greater triumphs yet to come. That also describes the two dances Kraus wrote for the Stockholm production of Gluck's Armide-insertions that serve to heighten the stage action.

The Swedish Chamber Orchestra is highly accomplished and enthusiastic, and despite some wiry string tone they deliver thoroughly committed performances of all these pieces under Sundkvist's spirited leadership. I especially like the raspy sound he often draws from the horns. The Orebro environs are resonant, yet warm and nicely detailed, and Van Boer's absorbing and knowledgeable commentary is a decided plus.

David Hurwitz, October 2007

Between the opera/ballets of Rameau and Beethoven's Prometheus (which, overture aside, no one particularly likes), how many free-standing ballets by Classical composers do we care about? None. Well, here's a charmer of a piece that, on disc at least, makes for a highly enjoyable and diverting 50 minutes of listening. The Fishermen's numerous short movements might best be summarized as comic opera without the singers. The dances include two labeled "Anglais", the second of which is clearly a traditional hornpipe, and there's also a penultimate dance in Hungarian style that anyone who knows Haydn's music in this vein will find quite familiar. Unfortunately (or maybe not) the plot is lost, but it's not hard to place the music's pastoral imagery and rustic demeanor. This piece is a real find, one that adds an additional dimension not just to Kraus' discography, but to our knowledge of ballet circa. 1789.

The other works are minor, but certainly not disappointing. Kraus' two Pantomines are in fact three- and four-movement sinfonias in miniature, while the two brief movements written for Gluck's Armide strike a more serious note. All of the performances are excellent--beautifully played by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and featuring sprightly conducting by Petter Sundkvist. He may go a bit too far in stretching the rhythm in the ballet's Hungarian dance, but there's no gainsaying his laudable efforts to characterize the various numbers. Excellent sonics too. This disc is a treat.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, October 2007

Born the same year as Mozart, both Kraus and Mozart were admired by Haydn, and indeed to the casual listener, Kraus' music sounds like so much Haydn and/or Mozart, but in a lighter vein, since Kraus was primarily devoted to stage music, and none of it of the stature attained by the two others. At an early age, Kraus moved to Sweden, where he became Kapellmesiter of the Royal Academy. The major ballet on the disc is "Fiskarena" (The Fishermen). Also included are two Pantomimes and incidental music to Gluck's 'Armide' that Fischer wrote for a performance he directed. The readings on the disc are competent, and audio quality is excellent.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

During his brief life Joseph Martin Kraus became the most influential musician in 18th century Sweden, dying at the early age of 36. He had been born and educated in Germany but accepting that it was already oversubscribed with composers, he set out at the age of 22 to live in Stockholm, a decision that seemed ill-advised, and for two years he lived in dire poverty. It was the commission to write an opera that proved the turning point, King Gustav then taking an interest in the young man, sending him on a grand tour of Europe at the King’s expense to observe the greatest music and musicians. He came into contact with Haydn who described him as “one of the greatest geniuses I have met”, and on his return to Stockholm the King showered him with prestigious appointments, including the teaching of the next generation of Swedish composers. Despite many demands on his time he found time to write a massive catalogue of compositions including operas, ballets, symphonies, cantatas, chamber music and songs. Sadly his pieces fell out of vogue after his death with the wealth of music coming from Germany and France. The people at Naxos seem to have taken a liking to his music, this being one of many discs released on the label. I must confess that if I were coming to his music I would want to experience the symphonies first, his ballet music occupying this disc having more charm than substance. When he arrived in Stockholm he found every opera had to have an integrated ballet, so he was not only required to include one in his operas, but also to provide those for operas that came to Sweden without one. He also wrote complete ballet scores, his most highly regarded being Fiskarena staged in 1789 to the choreography of Antoine Bournonville, the father of the legendary August Bournonville, the founder of the romantic ballet. The dances are short - some lasting less than a minute - and mainly consist of a melody that is repeated as many times as required. Its eighth dance contains a tune recycled as part of Henry Wood’s popular Sea Shanties. The two Pantomimes are early works prior to his Swedish days, their genesis unknown and are more akin to gentle sinfonias of no particular merit. Kraus certainly knew how to effectively score music, but today it makes no great demands on the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the playing neat and stylish. Translucent sound quality that falls pleasantly on the ear.

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