Notes and Editorial Reviews
Viola Concertos: in E?; in C. Concerto in G for Viola and Cello
David Aaron Carpenter (va, cond); Ritta Pesola (vc); Tapiola Sinf
ONDINE ODE 1193-2 (61:51)
In this day of the Internet and information-on-demand, surely many classical-music lovers have heard of Joseph Martin Kraus, but some haven’t. As to why, I won’t hazard a guess. This evaluation is written with those who haven’t in mind, so if you are among those who have already been bitten by the Kraus bug, I ask that you indulge me for a short
Kraus (1756–92), almost an exact contemporary of Mozart, was German by birth, but in 1778 he sought employment at the Swedish court in Stockholm. In 1780 he was commissioned to compose a “test” opera,
It turned out to be a success and Kraus was appointed assistant
. In 1782 a grand tour of Europe at the expense of the Swedish monarchy afforded Kraus the opportunity to study the latest musical and theatrical trends. He visited Germany, Austria, Italy, England, and France, where he encountered the leading musical figures of the day, including Gluck and Haydn. There is an overwhelming body of circumstantial evidence that while in Vienna he met Mozart, but no documentation of such a meeting exists. After returning to Stockholm in 1787, he was named first
and director of curriculum at the Royal Academy of Music, and over the next several years Kraus managed to build a firm and enviable reputation as a pedagog, composer, and conductor. But Kraus’s almost meteoric career came to an abrupt end when in 1792, six months after the assassination of Gustav III, he died at the age of 36.
For many years Kraus’s musical reputation rested upon a single work, a Symphony in C Minor, which is in actuality his reworking of an earlier symphony. This was how I first encountered Kraus’s music, and I began to wonder why there wasn’t more of it at hand. I had to wait for several decades before any significant effort was made to bring his music to the ears of the concertgoing public at large. But the wait was worth it, as I found my ears opened to a long-neglected master.
Kraus is primarily known today for his symphonies and theatrical works. Although Kraus was both versatile and prolific, there were certain forms that were treated in an almost routine manner and at the top of this list was the concerto. His only violin concerto—composed around 1777 while he was still a student in Göttingen—is one of a handful of works that include a lost double concerto for violin and viola as well as a Sinfonia Concertante for flute, violin, viola, and cello. One of the symphonies also contains an obbligato part for violin and extensive writing for solo flute and cello.
The three viola concertos on this recording aren’t newly discovered works. Rather they have been, as annotator Bertil van Boer puts it, “hiding in plain sight for almost 250 years.” At one time they were offered for sale by Breitkopf as works of a priest by the name of Romanus Hofstetter, a Benedictine monk who has also been listed as the composer of Haydn’s op. 3 string quartets. The Hofstetter attribution never came under scrutiny as there was no evidence to link the concertos to Kraus. The evidence that led to Kraus being named as the composer is as follows: (1) none of the known works of Hofstetter contain any significant obbligato writing for the viola; (2) Kraus was a gifted violinist, but seemed to prefer the viola; (3) the viola was the only string instrument found among Kraus’s personal effects after his death, and Kraus chamber music—the string quartets in particular—contains extremely virtuosic writing for the viola. There are other points, including varied repetitions and modulatory patterns and handwriting that corresponds to Kraus’s style in the late 1770s and early 1780s. With all of this evidence, circumstantial as it may be, Kraus specialist van Boer had no trouble in confidently attributing these concertos to the young man from Mittenberg am Main.
Now that we have dispensed with the provenance of these works, let’s focus on the music. These are remarkably assured works for a composer in his early 20s. They exhibit above-average familiarity with the form itself as well as a complete understanding of orchestral technique and the technical capabilities of the viola. The orchestral forces are small (oboes or flutes and strings) but they are deployed and employed with confidence. The thematic material is worked through with a masterly hand and not as much as a single note is superfluous.
David Aaron Carpenter has other recordings to his credit, including
Harold in Italy
by Berlioz (Ondine ODE 1188-2) and a disc of concertos of Elgar and Schnittke (Ondine ODE 1153-2). I suspect that the Elgar is an adaptation of his large-scale violin concerto. Carpenter has no problem with these works, as he has technique to burn as well as a rich, round tone that recalls Lionel Tertis, the great English violist of the early years of the 20th century, for whom so many works were composed. Carpenter works his way through these concertos with enviable ease, applying a sensible combination of scholarship and musicianship and doing so in a way that earns him much respect from not only his colleagues but also his audiences.
The Tapiola Sinfonietta has been around since 1987 and is the municipal orchestra for Espoo, Finland. Here the ensemble has a string distribution of 7-6-4-3-2 as well as pairs of flutes, oboes, horns, and a single bassoon. The orchestra is well drilled, its sound quite rich, and overall the ensemble is exceptionally clean without sounding antiseptic.
This fine release is both a welcome addition to the 18th-century repertoire in general and the Kraus discography in particular.
FANFARE: Michael Carter
Works on This Recording
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