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Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756 Ė 1792) Complete German Songs: An das Klavier, VB 94♀; Die Henne, VB 77♂; Schweizer Rundgesang, VB 72♀♂; Anselmuccio, VB 86♂; Die Mutter bei der Wiege, VB 92♀; Der Mann im Lehnstuhl, VB 91♂; An Ė als ihm die Ė starb, VB 74♀; Das Rosenband, VB 85♂; Der Abschied, VB 95♀; Die Welt nach Rousseau, VB 76♂; Daphne am Bach, VB 83♀; An mein Mädchen, VB 87♂; Ein Lied um Regen, VB 90♀♂; An den Wind I, VB 79♀; An den Wind II, VB 80♂; Das schwarze Lieschen aus Kastilien, VB 88♀; Der nordische Witwer, VB 89♂; Ein Wiegenlied: Seht doch das kalte Nachtgesicht, VB 93♀; Ich bin vergnügt, VB 82♂; Hans und Hanne, VB 78♂♀; An eine Quelle, VB 75♂; Phidile, VB 84♀; Ich bin ein deutscher Jüngling, VB 81♂; Ein Wiegenlied: So schlafe nun, du Kleine, VB 96♀; Rheinweinlied, VB 73♂; Gesundheit, VB 97♀♂
Birgid Steinberger (soprano)♀, Martin Hummel (baritone)♂, Glen Wilson (piano)
rec. Reitstadel Neumarkt, Oberpfalz, Germany, 2-4 August, 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557452 [62:55]

 

Whose 250th anniversary is celebrated this year? No prize for a correct answer Ė but there is another composer also worthy of celebration. Joseph Martin Kraus was born the same year as Wolfgang Amadeus and survived him by one year. While Mozart was active in the musical and cultural centres of Europe, Joseph Martin, although born and trained in Germany, spent a great deal of his adult life in then underdeveloped and forbidding Sweden. It is true that during the reign of King Gustavus III, Stockholm at least was beginning to develop. The king imported actors, composers and designers from Europe and had a new opera house built (opened 1782). Kraus was sent abroad to learn from the greats of the period, thus he met Gluck and Salieri in Vienna and even visited Esterháza and saw Haydn. During the late 1780s he was Court Kapellmeister in Stockholm and wrote music for both theatre and concert purposes. In March 1792 Gustavus III was murdered during that infamous masked ball, the setting of Verdiís Un ballo in maschera. He wrote the touching funeral music for the king but six months later he too was dead of tuberculosis.

Now it seems that the world has started to realize his greatness. Today quite a lot of his music is available on disc and not only from Swedish companies. The funeral music and his string quartets exist in excellent recordings on Musica Sveciae. His opera Soliman II was recorded in the early 1990s by Virgin. The real break-through came a few years ago when Naxos - who else? - launched a complete series of his symphonies. In toto four discs were issued with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Petter Sundkvist. All of them were critically acclaimed and should definitely be heard by anyone with an interest in 18th century music. His keyboard music has also been issued by Naxos and now come his German songs.

Kraus wrote quite a number of songs in six different languages: Danish, Dutch, German, Italian, French and Swedish. For the German ones he chose verses showing "the influence of the poets of the Göttingen Hainbund and those associated with or admired by members of the league". Keith Anderson tells us in his as usual excellent liner notes that half of the poems are by Matthias Claudius, whose verses were also set by Schubert. Many of the songs are strophic and quite simple but there are also some through-composed examples which show his dramatic ability.

In general these are agreeable efforts, melodic, easy on the ear and quite often with a personal twist. Listening through them all in one sitting never gave a feeling of monotony since there is enough variety. Some of them have a folksy character, e.g. the dialogue Hans und Hanne (track 20). Das schwarze Lieschen aus Kastilien (track 16) has a really catchy tune. An eine Quelle (track 21) is built in long legato phrases over a quicker accompaniment. A few of the songs are settings of Krausís own texts, e.g. Der Abschied (track 9), the longest of the songs at seven-plus minutes. About halfway through, the mood changes, becomes darker and the piano part sounds almost Schubertian. Ein Lied um Regen (track 13) is a prayer for rain during a dry period and the piano underlines the text by giving an impression of drizzle.

Die Henne (track 2), which starts like the old La Folia, is a through-composed comic scene with lively characterisation. Martin Hummel makes the most of the opportunities, adopting an intentionally crude, "un-schooled" and un-sophisticated singing style. Elsewhere he uses his ordinary Lieder voice, a light and nimble baritone. Even though he displays occasional rough edges and an almost amateurish tone he gives a favourable impression. These are well thought through interpretations. He even excels in a whistle in Die Welt nach Rousseau (track 10). The songs are of a type that should not be sung by operatic voices.

Birgid Steinberger, whose singing I wasnít too enthusiastic about in a Schubert recital some time ago, is also more suited to the requirements of Krausís writing. Her voice is quite thin and soubrettish. She should make a mark in the lighter Mozart parts, Barbarina, Blonde et al. She displays some fine legato singing (e.g. track 11, Daphne am Bach) and in the first of the two settings of An den Wind (track 14) is lively and temperamental. What she lacks is variety of tone; the over-riding impression is monochrome. She also has a narrow dynamic range. When she presses the voice beyond what could be called lyric cosiness it takes on an unpleasant vibrato (Phidile, track 20) but that is very much the exception. She sometimes has a tendency to squeeze the tone as if from a tube of toothpaste.

Glen Wilson, with a reputation as a distinguished harpsichordist, delivers discreet accompaniments, maybe more so than necessary. I wonder if it isnít the recording balance that is the culprit. The instrument sounds like a fortepiano but the cover of the disc only indicates "piano". The fairly frail tones can hardly emanate from a Steinway, possibly a Bösendorfer if it isnít a period instrument.

As is common these days Naxos donít print the texts in the booklet. We are instead referred to the internet where they can be downloaded as PDF-files Ė with English translations they occupy 22 pages. This means that in practice the texts will steal more space on my shelves than the disc. The only advantage is that I will get larger print than in the booklet. In the long run I will probably have to move to a bigger house.

Whether these are premiere recordings I donít know. Naxos are normally very careful to mention such things, but they are certainly worth the acquaintance. For me they further widen the picture of Krausís genius. While they will hardly be regarded as masterpieces and be incorporated in the standard repertoire it would be nice to hear them once in a while as part of some song recital. Since this will probably not happen all that frequently it is a safer bet to buy this inexpensive disc. In spite of some reservations, this gives honest and inspired readings of these attractive songs.

Göran Forsling

 



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