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
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.
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