Notes and Editorial Reviews
Educated from the age of 12 in Mannheim, Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-92) studied law in Mainz, Erfurt, and Göttingen. After hearing from Swedish university students about the state of the arts in their homeland, the German-born Kraus set foot on Swedish soil in 1778. The musical style of central European Classicism was already known to Swedish audiences, but they had yet to experience the music of the man who would eventually become one of Classicism's greatest contemporary exponents and almost a Swedish national musical institution.
It would not be out of place to refer to the multifaceted Kraus as a true Renaissance man, for above and beyond penning music in a kaleidoscope of genres, Kraus was a prolific correspondent and published author, having written a volume of poetry entitled Versuch von Schäfergedichten and the three-act tragedy Tolon before he was 20. Kraus also wrote one of the few musical aesthetic treatises that is associated with the literary Sturm und Drang movement. Between 1778 and 1780, Kraus also contributed a series of articles to Stockholms Posten. As an educator, Kraus was responsible for establishing a curriculum focusing on the comprehensive training of musicians at the Royal Swedish Academy.
In addition to being well educated, Kraus was widely traveled, spending four years away from Stockholm in the early and mid 1780s. His journey took him to Europe's major musical centers and brought him in contact with the leading musical figures of the day, including Haydn, Gluck, Martini, Salieri, and others. Coupled with his training in Mannheim, his travels enabled Kraus to develop an approach to composition that was extremely well rounded and in some ways advanced for the time. Indeed, during his years in the employment of the monarchy, Kraus was the most notable composer at the Gustavian court and was chosen to succeed Francesco Uttini as Kapellmeister in 1788.
The choral works on this release offer us a glimpse at an almost totally unknown corner of Kraus's craft. Via an ongoing series of recordings from Naxos, Kraus's symphonies are finally gaining the exposure they deserve, and there are forthcoming issues of his piano and chamber music from the classical music industry's budget behemoth, but by and large, the choral works are hitherto unexplored. One is immediately struck by Kraus's sense of the dramatic in Der Tod Jesu. The predominance of minor keys plus the unanticipated modulations, unusual harmonic relationships, and shifting sonorities and moods all point to a composer of exceptional talent, if not true genius. I am loath to point to the remaining works as minor, but in spite of that possibly damning appellation, they are excellently crafted and certainly worthy of your attention, if only as an idea of what was occurring in another part of Europe during the zenith of the Classical period.
The obvious comment from some will be "But it's not Haydn or Mozart," and it isn't. It is Kraus: solidly crafted, occasionally strikingly inventive, and always emotionally and aesthetically satisfying. The performances further underscore the contemporary importance and reputation of Kraus, as they are well rehearsed, nicely managed, and exhibit a fine emotional and artistic focus. The drama in the texts is wonderfully matched by Kraus's expressive music and artful score, and the marvelously sympathetic venue of the Stadtkirche St. Oswald in Buchen/Odenwald adds much presence and life to the recordings.
There is no reason for anyone who relishes liturgical music from the Classical period to pass this one by, for in spite of Kraus's relative obscurity it is recordings such as this that will continue to illuminate the importance of this minor master.
-- Robert Emmett, FANFARE [3/2002]