As a number of recent recordings - quite a
few of them on Naxos - have evidenced, Kraus was a considerable
composer, a man of real talent, perhaps even of genius. Haydn’s
observation that Kraus was the first man of genius that he met
has often been quoted. Nor was he the only one of Kraus’s contemporaries
to recognise his abilities - Gluck praised him highly too. Frederik
Samuel Silverstolpe, Swedish chargé d’affaires in Vienna and no
mean judge in musical matters observed of the work extracted on
this CD (in a letter of 1799) that “if it were translated and
played in other countries, it would make époque
musical world”. The late H.C. Robbins Landon wrote in his magisterial
Haydn: Chronicle and Works
that “like everything else of
Kraus, this opera is of a very high standard”.
Aeneas in Carthage
was first commissioned in 1781, to mark the opening of the new Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Repeated delays, for reasons beyond the composer’s control, prevented that and some other planned performances. Kraus returned to work on the opera more than once during the 1780s and the last revision appears to have been completed in 1791, the year before his sadly early death. The composer never saw this magnum opus on the stage – it was finally premiered on 18 November 1799 at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Aeneas in Carthage
is a huge work – in a Prologue and Five Acts – which received eight performances during the two years after its premiere, but never established itself as part of the operatic canon, more, one suspects, for the demands it makes on resources than for any intrinsic musical weaknesses.
This valuable CD from Naxos presents the extensive instrumental music which the work contains. Naturally there is some loss involved in this exercise – Kraus’s instrumental music is an integral part of a considerably larger work and all of it takes some of its meaning, at least, from its context(s) in that work. Excellent booklet notes by Bertil van Boer go a good way – but necessarily cannot go all the way – towards repairing the inevitable loss.
An English listener encountering an opera devoted to this subject will perhaps think first of Purcell; he or she would do better, in this case, to think of Berlioz. It is clear, even from hearing only the instrumental episodes from the work - and from reading plot summaries of it - that Kraus’s Aeneas in Carthage
is characterised more by the kind of epic scale one associates with Les Troyens
than the relative intimacy of Dido and Aeneas
. The grandness of the whole is evident in much of what can be heard on this disc - though, there are also some relatively slight pieces which no doubt perform useful theatrical functions in context. The more than ten minutes of the finale, a remarkable Chaconne, are a prime instance. This is beautifully constructed, richly and subtly orchestrated, a powerfully expressive piece and thoroughly individual. Though one can imagine something of its effect when heard at the end of so huge an opera, it packs a considerable musical punch even when heard divorced from its dramatic role - it would make a fine concert piece. Much the same might be said of the work’s two overtures – one for the Prologue, one for Act I and the opera proper – full as they are of vividly dramatic, and eminently theatrical, music, but also rewarding when listened to on their own.
A few of the pieces, such as the March and the Gavotte from Act I, are pretty insubstantial, when heard as ‘absolute’ music. But such items are much outweighed by the fascinating and satisfying music to be heard in, say, the Storm music from Act II - which invites comparison with other more famous representations of the same episode - or the intriguing tripartite Dance of the Carthaginian Maidens in Act III. Most of the slighter pieces are not without their attractions, either; there is much pleasure to be had, for example, from the contrast between Act III’s March of the Carthaginians, composed of dignified and solemn string writing, and the March of the Numidians which follows it, full of cymbals and assorted percussion, trumpets, piccolos and a general air of the quasi-‘Turkish’ exotic.
Inevitably this is in some ways a frustrating disc – one longs to hear (see?) the whole work. But there is plenty here to be going on with. The Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä, conducted by Patrick Gallois play with vivacity and discipline and Kraus’s wide palette of orchestral sound and effect is captured in a first class recording. A joy from beginning to end - several times over!
see also review by Brian