Notes and Editorial Reviews
Joseph Martin Kraus (1756?92) was a German-born composer who spent his most successful years in Sweden?and he had a small but sturdy reputation as one of the more interesting second-rank composers of his time until March 2005 (28:4), when he became, at least for readers of
. For those of you lucky enough to have missed the food fight: it began when Bertil van Boer wrote a letter about Jerry Dubins?s fairly innocuous review panning some of Kraus?s piano music. Van Boer is a distinguished musicologist with particular
expertise in the music of Kraus (in fact, he wrote the excellent notes for the CD Dubins had reviewed); and he clearly had both the background knowledge and the rhetorical command to write a rational and persuasive defense of the composer. Instead, he let his emotions boil over, penning an
piece of vituperation in which he called Dubins (among other things) a ?cretin.? No response was really necessary; the letter was sufficiently over-the-top to be self-damning. But Dubins, not content to leave well enough alone, responded with his characteristic overkill, ending up accusing van Boer of an intellectual style ?matching the level of our national political discourse.? You?d hope that that would end the matter, but two issues later, several letter writers and even
colleague Christopher Williams joined in the rumble (28:6). David English made an eloquent plea for ?simple civility??but his words were drowned out by the fracas. David N. Lewis went so far as to say ?Dubins is like a guy who goes to a banquet where every one [
] else is dressed to the nines, hikes down his trousers, and sits on his dinner plate??and Dubins contributed another three pages of response, suggesting that Lewis?s ?set of moral values? was ?adrift.?
?s most high-minded moment?although it did give Kraus a curious (if not altogether enviable) prominence. Suddenly, it seemed as if your position in the debate (and, even more, the sources you quoted to justify it) had become the touchstone against which all your qualities?social and moral as well as aesthetic?were to be measured. In the wake of the controversy, Kraus?s music seems to have gotten left behind.
So let?s retreat from the polemics for a moment and ask: what does the chamber music of this controversial composer sound like to those of us outside the fray?those of us who aren?t scholars of pre-Romantic music or who haven?t gotten our egos caught up in this dispute? Actually, if you check out the reviews that have appeared in this magazine over the years, it turns out that while Kraus?s music is highly idiosyncratic, there really hasn?t been serious disagreement among the critics. Sure, all of us writing about Kraus reveal differences in taste and emphasize different qualities when we listen, but we?re all obviously describing the same quirky composer.
In the music here, at least, the special Krausian quirkiness comes from a fundamental clash between (if I?ll be allowed a simplifying terminology) content and form. On the one hand, in terms of basic materials?the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms?there?s hardly anything to catch your ear or stick in your memory: there are endless scales, arpeggios, and other well-worn gestures of the period, but there?s seldom a phrase of striking beauty. As a result, you rarely go away from Kraus (as you often do from Mozart and Haydn and Gluck) humming his music: and when you do (say, with the little tune that starts the third movement Rondo in the Sonata in D), it?s more likely to be because the music is so ditzy that you can hardly believe it. On the other hand, at his most engaging, Kraus stitches these banal scraps together into remarkable structures?although even the word ?structure? seems to suggest a logic that the best music steadfastly resists. Like a champagne-fueled party conversation, this music is dizzying in its willingness to dance abruptly off in an unexpected direction, sometimes following an odd modulation?and it?s provoking in its penchant for continuing when you think it?s ended, as well as for ending when you think it?s going to continue (listen to the last movement of the Trio for a particularly delicious conclusion). Yes, there are moments where the music sustains a certain dramatic build (try the finale of the Violin Sonata in E
)?but the effect is more apt to be local than to characterize a movement (much less a work) as a whole. In the end, whatever the basic influences on Kraus, it?s hard to listen to his music without thinking of C. P. E. Bach?s?although Bach?s is melodically more winsome and less wacky in its trajectory.
Whether you view Kraus?s often aggressive lack of continuity a vice or a virtue will depend, of course, on your appreciation of intentional incoherence?as well as on your patience, sometimes necessary in passages where he seems to be vamping while waiting for the next idea to strike him (try the passage about two minutes into the first of the Violin Sonatas in C). But whatever else you can say about his music, it?s often far from conventional.
This disc gives us four of Kraus?s five violin sonatas?Antoinette Lohmann, in her notes, claims the other is of suspect origin. The disc is smartly filled out with his Trio in D, as well as the solo piano alternative to the Sonata in E
(also on the infamous CD that Dubins reviewed), different enough that it hardly seems redundant. I wish the production were better: while the notes are informative as far as they go, they leave a lot unspecified and have more than their share of amusing misprints (one of which promises a kind of unparalleled authenticity by suggesting that the violinist was born in 1769). Thus, although the CD proudly advertises ?world première recording,? it?s not clear what the phrase refers to: much, if not all, of this material has been recorded before. Fortunately, the period-instrument performances are lively (the Trio is especially well handled) and the sound is good. All in all, recommended for the adventurous.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Violin and Piano in C major by Joseph Martin Kraus
Vaughan Schlepp (Fortepiano),
Antoinette Lohmann (Violin)
Notes: Composition written: Circa 1780 - Circa 1782.
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