Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792, German, Sweden)

Kraus’ dates (1756-1792) make him an exact contemporary of Mozart, integral with the untimely death at the age of 36 (of tuberculosis), one year and ten days after Mozart (he was his younger by a mere five months). He was born and trained in Germany but established in Sweden at the age of 21 (incidentally, German-born Beethoven established in Vienna at the same age). But his breakthrough came only three years later, when his talent was recognized by enlightened and autocratic King of Sweden Gustav III, a great patron of the arts and champion of opera in Swedish language. Gustav is famous for providing the model of Ricardo in Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera, derived from Auber’s Gustave III ou le Bal masqué. He took Kraus in his service and even sponsored the composer on a four-year training tour of Europe, from October 1782 to the end of 1786  – the ancient regime version of J. William Fulbright, I call it. Gustav was shot to death in 1792 by a Swedish nobleman who, no doubt, had a strong dislike for opera in Swedish and young Joseph Martin, the epitome of a servant’s fidelity, survived his master only a few months.

Kraus wasn’t a child prodigy and early starter as Mozart – in his training years he hesitated between a career in law, drama or music. The two CDs of his symphonies recorded by Concerto Köln in the early 1990s for Capriccio, 10 396 and 10 430, are the best introduction to his music. At their best, they offer great Sturm und Drang emotional turbulence in the outer movements, and charming galant atmospheres in the Andantes. Volume II also features two symphonies – Kraus’ two last – that are original in their form and function, a grand, festal and regal two-movement symphony from 1789 and the “Funeral Symphony” he wrote in honor of Gustav in 1792.

I’ve also reviewed individual symphonies recorded by Claude Génetay (Symphony in E-flat from 1784) on Gustavian composers: Francesco Antonio Uttini, Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Joseph Martin Kraus, Georg Joseph “Abbé” Vogler, Musica Sveciae MSCD 407 and Hans-Martin Linde with Cappella Coloniensis on Sinfonien der Klassik (Gossec, Vanhal, Mahaut, Kraus), Phoenix Edition 174 (Symphony in C-minor from 1782), but there is more drive (together with the slightly acid tone of period strings) in the Allegros of Concerto Köln (both on volume 1); the Musica Sveciae disc though is particularly valuable for its inclusion of Vogler’s symphony from 1799.  These are also in my collection but I haven’t reviewed them yet:

Overture “Olympie”, Symphony da Chiesa, Symphony in C minor, Symphony in C major, Riksdagsmarsch by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Anthony Halstead on Musica Sveciae MSCD 419 (1991), barcode 7392068204197 (1991).  Symphony da Chiesa is also on Concerto Köln’s volume 2, and the two others on their volume 1.

Olympie Overture, Symphony in E flat major VB 144, Symphony in C major VB 139, Symphony in C minor VB 142. Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Petter Sundkvist. Naxos 8.553734 (1997), barcode  73009947422. The three symphonies are on Concerto Köln’s vol. 1

Symphonies in C major “Violin obligato” VB 138 (also on Concerto Köln’s vol. 2), F major VB 130, A major VB 128, Sinfonia Buffa VB 129 (those three all premiere recordings). Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Petter Sundkvist. Naxos 8.554472 (1999), barcode 636943447222

Symphony in D VB 143 (also on Concerto Köln’s vol. 1) by Guy van Waas and Ensemble Les Agrémens, in “Haydn à Paris” with Haydn Symphonies Hob 1:85 “Queen” and 45 “Farewell”. Ricercar RIC 277 (2008), barcode 5400439002777. I have it on the 7-CD compilation “The Parisian Symphony”, Riceracr RIC 357 (2015), barcode 5400439003576

More versions of Kraus’ symphonies, but those are not yet in my collection: Symphony in C minor (on Concerto Köln’s vol. 1), Symphony funèbre and Kraus’ Violin Concerto on Orfeo C 254921, with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Martin Sieghart, barcode 4011790254128 (1992). Nicholas McGegan did the C major, C-sharp minor and Violin Concerto on Hungaroton 32733 with Capella Savaria, barcode 5991813273321 (2014). And of course Naxos has served Kraus superbly with many recordings, including, from 1996 to 2000, four CDs that appear to be a complete Kraus symphony cycle (with a number of premiere recordings), with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Petter Sundkvist. Following the two I have (see above) were 8.554777 barcode 636943477724 (C-sharp minor, “Funèbre”, both on Concerto Köln’s vol.2, E minor, Overture in D minor) and 8.555305 barcode 747313530526 (“per la Chiesa”, in F, in D major, an altenative Larghetto for the E flat major, Riksdagmarsch).

Among those symphonies, two, the E-minor on Naxos vol. 3 and F-major on Naxos vol. 4, were not recorded by Concerto Köln, probably because in fact they were published in Paris under the name of Joseph-Marie (aka Giuseppe) Cambini, whose reputation there and then was far greater than the virtually unknown Kraus. Both were recorded on a 1999 CD of Cambini Symphonies by Academia Montis Regalis, Opus 111 30244, barcode 709861302444.

I’ve also reviewed two different recordings of Kraus’ Funeral Cantata for Gustav, the premiere recording (1969) by Newell Jenkins, reissued in 1997 on Vanguard SVC-61 and the version on period instruments by Stefan Parkman on Musica Sveciae MSCD 416 (1988).

More Kraus in my collection, not yet reviewed, includes the music for the play Soliman II by Philip Brunelle on Virgin VC 7 91496-2, barcode 075679149626, the Arie e Cantate sung by Barbara Bonney and Claes Ahnsjö accompanied by the Drottningholm Court Orchestra under Thomas Schuback, Musica Sveciae MSCD 424 (1990), barcode 7392068204241, and his opera Proserpin on Musica Sveciae MSCD 422-23 (1994), barcode 7392068204227.

On my “to buy” list there is also Kraus’ Requiem and Miserere by La Stagione on Cpo 777 409, barcode 761203740925. I haven’t yet looked at his keyboard and chamber music.

Additional resources:

See Kraus’ entry on Wikipedia

An incomplete but useful discography of Kraus, in French

Comments are welcome