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Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756-1792)
Complete Piano Music

Sonata in E major (VB 196) (ca 1787/88) [26:03]
Sonata in E flat major (VB 195) (1785) [22:25]
Rondo in F major (VB 191) [7:17]
Scherzo con variazioni (VB 193) [9:01]
Swedish Dance (VB 192) [3:25]
Zwey neue Kuriose Menuetten für Clavier (VB 190) [1:51]
Larghetto (VB 194) [0:39]
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
rec. August 2003, Őstrĺker Church, Sweden. DDD
BIS-CD-1319 [72:06]
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I have recently spent some enjoyable time with Brautigam’s fortepiano recordings of Mozart’s solo complete piano music. I have now been delighted to see that these performances are played on another instrument by Paul McNulty, this time based on an early 1800s example by Walther & Sohn. The sound is a little brighter than the instrument used for the Mozart, slightly more silvery, but with an equally attractive colour and depth. Listeners who may have been put off by creaky old recordings of fortepianos in the past will be reassured to hear such beautifully made and tuned modern reproductions. These are the sounds of the past brought into the present as richly and accurately as those which issue so beguilingly from period music boxes, unchanged in many generations.

Joseph Kraus is a name which to me stands for the highest quality in both imagination and craftsmanship. This collection of his surviving piano music is quite up to the expected standard. Kraus has been describes as ‘the Swedish Mozart’, and listening superficially one can hear what is meant by such a glib comparison. Lovers of Mozart will certainly find the works on this disc to their taste, but they will also find themselves asking the question: ‘what is it that makes Kraus different?’ Detailed analysis no doubt reveals numerous variations between the two composer’s fingerprints when it comes to their piano writing. Mozart was an opera composer, and so many of his melodies could so easily become arias. Kraus has something more in common with Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, with often less outspokenly lyrical themes, occasionally a more quirky approach to tonalities, major-minor relationships, cadence formation, moments of counterpoint and variety in his use of the left hand. In the end, you find yourself asking ‘what would Mozart have done?’ and almost invariably coming up with something tangibly different to Kraus – making Kraus Kraus, and not merely a pale imitation of Mozart.

Taking the Scherzo con variazioni as an introduction we get all of the expected virtuoso fireworks which might have appeared in an improvisation over such a theme. There are witty pauses and flights in unexpected directions, conversations between left and right hands, expressiveness in the minor key and plenty of idiosyncratic piano writing; a description of which could easily apply to a far later composer – but still existing within the strictures of the classical idiom. The same is true of the Rondo in F, which gives more of a sense of the relationship and influence of C.P.E. Bach, while at the same time being a showpiece for Kraus as a virtuoso communicator – keeping the crowds happy with a grin and a wink from behind his keyboard.

The two Sonatas are works of substance and great intrinsic interest. The CD opens with the slightly later Sonata in E which stakes its claim to be at the top of the heap of late 18th century keyboard sonatas in terms if its intricacy and technical intensity. Just taking the first minute or so of the second Adagio movement the mind is sent on a journey which is hard to grapple with on first hearing. A deceptive, simple opening theme is almost immediately challenged by rising figures, followed with dissonances and resolutions which seem to pop out of nowhere. 30 seconds in and the opening theme is already being subjected to Brahmsian minor key torture in the lower register, answered in the higher, and tailing off with a plangent descent which could end anywhere, and indeed introduces a hefty remoteness of key which has the brain grasping for straws of familiarity – immediately granted with further variations and diversions on and around the opening theme (in the new key). There is plenty of advanced musical thinking going on here, reaching deeply into Beethovenesque territory.

The marginally earlier Sonata in E-flat posses an innocence and openness of character, characterised by largely two-part piano writing and much elegance and lyricism. The central Andante con variazioni has the most adventurous and romantic character of the three movements, reminding me a little of Chopin’s variations on Rossini.

It almost goes without saying that Brautigam revels in the effectiveness of this music on such a marvellous instrument. His effortless technique brings out all of the charm and, where necessary, the Sturm und Drang passion to Kraus’s sometimes remarkably adventurous piano writing. The recording is placed in a Church acoustic with a generous reverberation. This helps the atmosphere, without detracting from the all-important detail in this music. I congratulate Bis’s engineer Ingo Petry on the sound of this recording: one has the feeling one is being given a one-to-one private recital, seated a comfortable distance from the piano, but still able to see every bead of sweat on the player’s forehead. I find myself increasingly drawn to the fortepiano sound, and be warned - modern instruments can end up sounding quite flat and dull by comparison.

Dominy Clements


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