"I have from him one of his symphonies, which
I keep in memory of one of the greatest geniuses that I have
met". "I have only this one work, but I know that
he wrote other outstanding music." These two quotations
- dating from different years - are from none other than Joseph
Haydn expressing his admiration for Joseph Martin Kraus. He
is one of the composers who for a long time was overshadowed
by Haydn himself and by Mozart - whose exact contemporary he
was. But that has changed, and if I am not mistaken it was largely
due to two discs of his symphonies recorded by Concerto Köln
that the musical world realised that Kraus was an excellent
composer who deserved to be rescued from oblivion. That recording
was recently reissued and reviewed
Kraus received an excellent musical education, from members
of the court orchestra of Mannheim, the most celebrated orchestra
in Europe. This would have been around the middle of the 18th
century. He studied philosophy and law at various universities
and became involved with one of Germany's literary circles,
the 'Göttinger Hainbund'. During his studies in Erfurt he was
educated as a composer by Georg Peter Weimar, a pupil of Carl
Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Christian Kittel, one of Johann
Sebastian Bach's last pupils. In 1778 he went to Stockholm,
where the most important stage in his career took place.
The sacred music by Kraus has, to date, received little attention.
Not that there is much to pay attention to, as his oeuvre in
this genre is relatively small, and some of it has disappeared.
New Grove mentions two oratorios, one of which is lost; the
other has been recorded in 1998 (Der Tod Jesus; Carus,
1998). There are also some smaller pieces: sacred arias and
motets. The two large works on this disc are among his most
substantial. They were written before his time in Sweden.
The disc opens with a setting of the penitential Psalm 50 (51),
Miserere mei, Deus. It dates from 1773, when Kraus was
studying in Erfurt. The work is scored for four solo voices,
choir and an orchestra of two horns, two oboes, bassoons, strings
and basso continuo. The tracklist adds flutes and clarinets
in brackets to the scoring, and apparently they are used as
alternatives to the oboes and horns. The booklet doesn't mention
whether these are added as alternatives by Kraus himself or
whether their inclusion is a decision by Michael Schneider.
The work begins and ends with choral sections, and in between
tutti and soli alternate. There is some text illustration, including
ascending and descending figures, but much less than in sacred
music from the baroque era. The tutti sections are mostly homophonic,
but there are some fugal episodes as well, as in 'Ne projicias'
and in the closing 'Sicut erat'.
This psalm contains some nice contrasts which are inspired by
the text. Operatic elements are rare; one is the bass aria 'Docebo
iniquos vias tuas' in which the words "convertentur"
(turn) and "exultabit" (sing in joy) are set to virtuosic
coloratura writing. 'Sacrificium Deo' is one of the most expressive
sections whose appealing character is especially expressed by
the solo part for the alto. This is ingeniously interwoven with
the choral part.
The Requiem dates from two years later. It is not known
for which occasion it was written. The orchestral scoring is
more modest with just two horns joining the strings and the
basso continuo. It contains some traditional traits but there
are also modern elements, especially in that Kraus has left
out parts of the traditional text of the Requiem Mass. In the
Kyrie the words 'Christe eleison' are omitted, and sections
like 'Dies irae', the Offertory and the Communion are also abridged.
In regard to text expression one finds a contrast in the Introitus
between "hear my prayer" set at high pitch and "to
you shall all flesh come" at low pitch. It is the alto
again who has one of the most expressive arias, 'Lacrimosa dies
illa' (Dies irae). Another highlight is the Benedictus, a duet
of soprano and alto. The Agnus Dei ends with the choir singing
a capella "requiem sempiternam" after which
the more vivacious 'Lux aeterna' closes the work.
The last work, Stella coeli, dates from much later in
Kraus's career. He has written it when he was already working
in Sweden and was on a tour through Europe. When he stayed in
Amorbach, where his father lived, Roman Hoffstetter, the choirmaster
and organist of the local Benedictine monastery, asked him to
set the text of the Marian antiphon Stella coeli to music.
It is scored for soprano and tenor solo, choir and an orchestra
of two horns, two flutes, strings and basso continuo. The organ
solo in the middle of this work is remarkable. In the whole
second section of this antiphon the organ plays a concertante
Although I wouldn't rate Kraus's sacred music presented here
as high as his orchestral music, these three works contain enough
memorable moments to make them well worth your listening time.
The choir and the orchestra give very good performances, and
the soloists - who are all also members of the choir - are mostly
good as well. Annemei Blessing-Leyhausen has a nice and pleasant
voice, but I am not very impressed by her diction. In 'Te decet
hymnus' (Requiem), for instance, I found it hard to understand
what she was singing. The contralto Carmen Schüller has a warm
timbre and sings with much expression. Her male colleague Paul
Gerhard Adam takes most of the soli, and he also sings with
great expression. From time to time I felt that technically
he was not totally secure. In particular in some leaps he sounded
a little uncomfortable. Julian Prégardien, son of the famous
German tenor Christoph Prégardien, is just 25, but his career
is underway already, and it is not hard to understand why he
is in much demand. He has a clear voice, excellent diction and
a pleasant natural vibrato. His contributions here are outstanding.
Ekkehard Abele is a regular in CPO recordings, and delivers
good performances, as usual.
All in all, this is a very good recording of three vocal works
which support the view that Kraus doesn't deserve to be in the
shadow of the masters. Michael Schneider and his colleagues
have done him justice with this recording.
I only wish CPO had done likewise. I don't know who was overseeing
the production of the booklet, but he or she must have had a
bad day at the office. The indication of the vocal scoring in
the libretto is sometimes wrong. For example, track 4 (Ecce
enim, from the Miserere) is not for soprano, alto and bass,
as the libretto says, but for choir. In track 10 to 12 the Latin
text and the German translation have been mixed up. It is not
the first time I have noticed this sort of thing in CPO's booklets.
Johan van Veen