American Record Guide
, December 2008
Called by many “The Swedish Mozart”, Joseph Martin Kraus was actually born near Mainz, Germany and trained for many years in the Mannheim School before finally moving to Stockholm at the age of 22. There he was fortunate enough to secure a position as court composer to King Gustav III, who was a great patron of the arts and even generously paid for Kraus to travel abroad—where he had the opportunity to meet with Haydn—a four-year grand tour that stimulated Kraus to compose a number of symphonies in the prevailing sturm und drang style. We have reviewed several recordings of his symphonies, above all the eloquent Symphonie Funèbre written feverishly and with great reverence following Gustav’s assassination at a masked ball in 1792 (an event commemorated by both Verdi and Auber). Many readers will also know of its harrowing counterpart, the Funeral Cantata, which surely matches the symphony in intensity.
Yet Kraus’s principal duty as Kapellmeister was writing for the stage, beginning in 1781 with his greatly admired opera Proserpin. Soon afterward, at Gustav’s behest, Kraus set to work creating a substantial entertainment from Molière’s comedy Amphitryon, which the King remembered fondly from performances he had seen as a child in Drottningholm. The resulting pastiche of arias, choruses, and a wide variety of balletti was widely acclaimed both in Stockholm and abroad, with one writer finding in it “everything that can be composed with regard to the theatrical, the naive, the fiery, and the pleasant; one marveled to see that Kraus’s genius was not limited to the tragic or the chromatic, but rather that he was likewise a master of the joyous and brilliant”.
Purists should note that Molière played fast and loose with Greek mythology, seizing on the legendary birth of Heracles (Hercules) as the felicitous outcome of a tryst between Queen Alcmene of Thebes and the god Jupiter, who appeared to her disguised as her husband Amphitryon. Molière thought it great sport to turn the revered legend into a pointed satire directed against the profligate court of Louis XIV; and Kraus softened the edges even more, having Amphitryon show up incognito to surprise his wife, only to find he’s already in his wife’s boudoir, or rather someone who looks remarkably like him. Quickly he retreats, then reappears as the true victorious hero, whereupon Jupiter resumes immortal form and blesses the happy couple as the crowd rejoices. (Exactly where that leaves the infant Heracles is also left unresolved in Kraus’s retelling, and perhaps that’s just as well.)
Dispensing with the usual overture, Kraus divides the music into four intermèdes that (the notes inform us) were probably not intended as entr’actes but rather integrated into the stage action, culminating in a sumptuous Divertissement nearly half an hour long that concludes with a festive and triumphant Chaconne. Other standouts include a breezy ‘Balletto’ (track 8) where the Hours of the Day chase away the Stars, the spirited ‘Danse Persanne’ (track 14) with its bravura turn for the flute, and the bracing Janissary color of the moto perpetuo ‘Balletto’ (track 24), part of the Divertissement. The oboe deftly fields the daunting passagework that depicts the Stars cavorting about Night (track 6), while the raspy horns set off the chorus of Thebans celebrating Amphitryon’s victorious return (track 21) and also take center stage in the second segment of the Divertissement (track 23)—interrupted briefly by an ingenious thunderstorm. Soprano Chantal Santon as Night floats an elegant line and also makes it through some fairly demanding runs (track 5), while tenor Georg Poplutz boasts a ringing tone and noble demeanor as Amphitryon’s Herald, set against a glorious panoply of trumpet and drum worthy of Lully (track 18).
The chamber ensemble L’Arte del Mondo includes among its players the founders of Concerto Köln; they employ period instruments and observe historical performance practice as much as possible. I found that if I turned up the volume I could obtain quite a room-filling sound without sacrificing the remarkable clarity and detail of the Cologne venue. This is a significant contribution to Kraus’s stage music on records.