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Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756-1792)
String Quartets: in G major VB2 187 Op.1 No.6 (1784) [21:07]; in C minor VB2 179 [7:42]; in E major VB2 180 [18:01]; in G minor VB2 183 Op.1 No.3 (1784) [10:22]; in B major VB2 181 Op1. No.2 (1784) [69:32]
Salagon Quartet (Christine Busch, Kathrin Tröger (violin), Claudia Hofert (viola), Gesine Queyras (cello))
rec. SWR Studios, Stuttgart, 27-30 December 2005
CARUS 83.194 [69:32]

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The 250th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Martin Kraus has been celebrated with some gusto in and around Buchen, near his birthplace and where he received his early education. The programme of events for ‘Krausgedankjahr 2006’ can be seen at

Kraus is regularly described as ‘little-known’ or ‘forgotten’. Such epithets seem rather doubtfully accurate, however, when one considers, for example, how well he has been served by the record companies in recent years. Naxos have issued four volumes of his symphonies: 8.553734, 8.554472, 8554777 and 8.555305 – see reviews (Kraus_symphonies4.htm; KRAUS_symphonies.htm), a volume of the ‘Complete Music for Pianoforte’ (see review Kraus_piano.htm) and a CD of all his German songs (see reviews: Kraus_songs_8557452.htm; Kraus_8557452.htm).

On Carus there is a collection of his sacred music (Carus 83.142/000). There are other collections of his symphonies on Capriccio (Capriccio 10 396 and 10 430). There are CDs of the piano music, played by Ronald Brautigam, on BIS 1319 and by Mario Martinoli on Stradivarius STR 33967 . On Musica Sveciae MSCD 415 is a collection of chamber music: a piano trio, a violin sonata and the flute quintet. There’s at least one other disc of String Quartets on Cavalli 224. And this is not a complete list. It hardly sounds like the discography of a ‘little-known’ and ‘forgotten’ composer. Do ‘forgotten’ composers have a ‘gedankjahr’ dedicated to them?

The true position is perhaps best described by W. Dean Sutcliffe in the course of a review – in Eighteenth-Century Music, 2:1, 2005 – of a new edition of Kraus’s keyboard music:-

Even among many comparable cases of later eighteenth-century composers, the fate of Kraus has been a curious one. He has long been a figure to reckon with in German-speaking Europe – a focus for this reputation is provided by the activities of the Internationale Joseph Martin Kraus-Gesellschaft, based in the town of Buchen where he grew and up – and in Sweden, where from 1781 he was in the service of the court of Gustav III. In English-speaking countries, on the other hand, he perhaps registers even less than many other figures of his time who have been overwhelmed by the Viennese Classical juggernaut.

The recent relative abundance of recordings of Kraus’s work make some kind of estimate of his work possible – even for benighted anglophones. A cultured man, who studied law and philosophy, published a tragedy, a collection of poems and a treatise on music, Kraus’s oeuvre as a composer ran to some 208 works. They included some 17 sacred works, 4 operas, 7 secular cantatas, 21 symphonies, 5 concertos, 16 string quartets and a flute quintet, 6 piano trios, 4 violin sonatas and 3 piano sonatas - some of these 208 works are now lost. But enough survives to reveal a composer of some considerable individuality, a composer not easily ‘placed’ in historical or stylistic terms.

Kraus was an exact contemporary of Mozart, but one is perhaps more often reminded of C.P.E. Bach (especially) and of Haydn. But there is a sense of drama, a fondness for suggestive, even ironic, pauses and for unpredictable changes of direction, along with the occasional odd tonal relationship that all make for a quirky musical voice imbued with a strong sense of the composer’s personality. That sense of personality is perhaps more evident than an entirely assured formal sense. His best symphonies – such as those in C major (VB 138) and C minor (B 142) – make it clear that his is an important presence in the eighteenth-century history of that form. His writing for fortepiano, though not extensive, has been sensibly judged – to quote W. Dean Sutcliffe again – as "a major addition to the repertory … a keyboard oeuvre the significance of which is out of all proportion to its size".

What, then, of Kraus as a writer of string quartets? Sadly, his achievement here seems to be rather inconsistent. This CD presents us with three of the set of six quartets which were published as Kraus’s opus 1 in 1784 by J. J. Hummel in Berlin and Amsterdam. Hummel had recently published an edition of Haydn’s Six Quartets (op.33) of 1782, and this set by Kraus was perhaps intended to appeal to the appetite aroused by Haydn’s quartets. To the three op.1 quartets, the Salagon Quartet add two of the four quartets by Kraus which survive in manuscript. Some of the op. 1 quartets may have been composed before 1777; no.6 was written between 1782 and 1784; the dates of the unpublished quartets are unknown. One cannot, then, very usefully discuss these works in terms of the progression or development of Kraus’s concept of the form. Op.1 nos 1 and 3, are in three movements; so is the quartet in E major; the C minor quartet consists of two movements, while op.1 no.6 is in four movements.

Op.1 no.3 is a less than gripping piece. Its opening movement - marked andante commoto – starts promisingly, but keeps on going for some while after Kraus seems to have lost real interest in it; its central Romance is oddly characterless; its brief closing movement – tempo di minuetto – doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere and its sudden ending gives the impression (rightly or wrongly) than Kraus can’t be bothered to develop his materials. The C minor quartet is a pretty slight affair, though not without some mildly attractive melodies. In Op.1 no.2, two relatively humdrum outer movements frame a central largo which – as Jonathan Woolf noted in an earlier review (Kraus_Quartets_83194.htm) - is graced by a lovely viola solo.

The two most successful works here are op.1 no.6 and the quartet in E major (VB2 180) – the latter said to be receiving its first ever recording. Op.1 no.6, in G major begins impressively, with a substantial opening allegro which has both elegance and gravity – it gets a convincing performance here. This is followed by an engaging dance movement marked scozzese in which Kraus builds up an intriguing set of variations and a largo which, in its unexpected twists and turns is characteristic of Kraus. So, I suppose, is the brevity of the allegro finale – which leaves nothing concluded. Kraus cannot be said to have evolved a truly satisfactory idea of the balance and proportions of the quartet. Even his best quartets seem oddly lop-sided, never quite amounting to more than the sum of their parts. The E major quartet has a rich sense of instrumental interplay and a good deal of Kraus’s rather quirky intelligence and musical mannerisms. Even so, it doesn’t really leave the listener with a sense of wholeness, of integration and intellectual/emotional completeness. These quartets by Kraus are tantalisingly close to a level of achievement which lies just beyond their composer’s reach. One result of listening to them is the renewed realisation of just how remarkable Haydn’s contemporary work in the form is.

The Salagon Quartet was formed in 2004. The booklet notes tell us that "their artistic ideal is based on the transparent, eloquent and colourful manner of playing which has developed through the use of instruments appropriate to the historical period (e.g. with gut strings and the use of bows modelled on originals from the period), and through the careful consideration of historical performance practice over the past few decades". For the most part they can be said to live up to such ideals. Their playing is generally assured and precise, and there is a strong sense of coherence. Just now and then there might have been room for a little more in the way of characterisation and vivacity, but these are accomplished performances. The recorded sound is clear but close. Not Kraus at his very best, but well worth hearing.

Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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