A grand Gustavian entertainment.
is based on the myth surrounding the conception and birth of the Greek hero Heracles. In the play, Zeus descends from the heavens to consort with Queen Alcmene of Thebes, to this end adopting the guise of her husband Amphitryon, who at the time is returning, victorious from battle against the Thaphians. Molière adapted the classical comedic version of this tale, complete with mistaken identities and the common subject of matrimonial faithfulness, and further elaborating the piece with secondary characters and making it more relevant for satire against the court of Louis XIV. King Gustav III was responsible for
prolonging the revival of such works in Sweden in the 18
th century, and as court composer, Joseph Martin Kraus was duly set to work creating a comédie-ballet. The first performance was at the Swedish court in 1787, over 100 years after the play itself was written.
Kraus’s music consists of four interludes and a divertimento for ballet. The opening of the first interlude is one of those insinuating, strangely electric and mystery laden passages, the mood of which put me in mind of the opening of Franz Berwald’s much later
Sinfonie sérieuse. The mood is that of the ‘Calme de la nuit’, after which things start to warm up quite quickly. A student of Kraus, Per Frigel, wrote at the time: “(his work) is where everything playful, naïve, fiery and pleasing is to be found that can be composed. One marvelled to see that Kraus’ genius was not limited to the tragic and chromatic but was also a master of the joyful and the brilliant.”
There are indeed a great number of ‘brilliant’ set pieces, admirably performed by the soloists and orchestra on this fine recording. With the exception of one chorus, Chantal Santon carries the first interlude entirely alone, with as a highlight the aria
Alcmène, jouis du Bonheur. Only the lowest extremes of range of this provide one or two understandable problems: I for one had the feeling Kraus might have been having some fun at his soprano’s expense in this aria. Georg Poplutz finally has a look-in with
Géneral des Thebains halfway through the third interlude. His is a suitably eloquent tenor voice, matching well with the feel of the ensemble and eschewing any kind of over-dramatised approach. The chorus is dainty and superbly transparent throughout, with fine phrasing and dynamics, heard to good effect but all too briefly in
Que ce jour est heureux pour nous, but making its mark at plenty of moments elsewhere.
Fans of Kraus will delight in having such a feast of new material, but my feeling is that the constraints of writing for a court theatre piece led him to tread carefully, going for quality and integrity over anything from which too much originality might baffle a court audience. There are some nice harmonic ‘hooks’ which make one sit up and take notice, such as the rising sequence in the
Entrée du Héraut, but it is in the final set of eight
Divertissement ballet numbers that some of the more original effects are reserved. These come in the form of some unusual orchestration and some opportunities for Kraus to show off some breathtaking compositional virtuosity in terms of melodic wit and surprising turns of phrase and cadence. The second of these rivals Beethoven in its portrayal of a storm, the third swings like a true dance number for any age, and some of the slower numbers such as the
Andante grazioso have some of those lovely harmonic progressions which gives us more of the Kraus who keeps bringing us back for more.
L’arte del mondo was formed by Werner Ehrhardt in 2004, and has rapidly made its mark on the historically informed performing scene, presenting work from the Baroque through to early Romanticism. They certainly make a grand showing on this release, and I have little criticism to make of any aspect of this recording. As a live release there is nothing to be feared in terms of intrusive audience noise, but if I am to be really picky then I would have to say that this recording is in some ways almost ‘too nice’. I would have expected perhaps a little more raunchiness in the playing, perhaps some greater sense of danger or rough-edgedness. Perhaps this is a side-effect of the live recording, or is maybe something rather more alien to the Swiss idiom of Kraus than I might have anticipated, considering the French influences which crop up in some of the dance forms. In any case, the playing and singing on this disc is of the utmost refinement, and the production deserving of every accolade. Conductor and players draw out all of the elegant quality inherent in this music, and have provided us with what Bertil van Boer describes in the excellent booklet notes, “a grand Gustavian entertainment.”
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International