18 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Joseph Martin Kraus – ARIAS AND OVERTURES (M. Groop, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra; NAXOS 8.572865)

CD REVIEW: Joseph Martin Kraus - ARIAS AND OVERTURES (NAXOS 8.572865)

JOSEPH MARTIN KRAUS (1756 – 1792): Arias and OverturesMonica Groop, mezzo-soprano; Helsingin Barokkiorkesteri; Aapo Häkkinen, conductor [Recorded at Sello Hall, Espoo, Finland, 10 – 12 June 2013; NAXOS 8.572865; 1 CD, 62:47; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Had Robert Frost been a composer of music as well as verse, he might have described Classical Music as two roads diverging in a wood, one leading to at least a perception of immortality and the other to oblivion. Thus it has proved for so many musicians whose places in history have descended from the glow of the footlights to exile among footnotes. It is perplexing that later generations are so curious about the daily lives of great musical geniuses without allocating any particular interest to the contemporaries they admired and emulated. Some of the most contentious words that can be written about music are any that suggest, however reverentially, that the primacy of Mozart’s place in musical history is slightly overestimated, but even a genius such as Mozart’s did not develop in a vacuum. Among the many names of fellow composers with whose work Mozart was familiar, that of his almost exact contemporary and fellow Freemason Joseph Martin Kraus for more than two hundred years largely escaped notice. Born—like the more famous Salzburger—in 1756, Kraus spent the best years of his short career at the court of the ill-fated Gustav III, where he was celebrated as the Swedish Mozart. That he was not Swedish is established easily enough, but the claim that he was a musical equal of Mozart is less handily dismissed: by the time of his untimely surrender to consumption in 1792, not long after the Verdi-commemorated assassination of his royal patron, Kraus’s standing in the company of Albrechtsberger, Dittersdorf, both Haydns, Holzbauer, and Mozart was widely acknowledged. It is a hard fate for a composer of true quality to be forgotten by the world that created him, but Kraus is gradually reclaiming the recognition to which the merit of his music entitles him. Unfortunately, the selections on this new disc from NAXOS portray Kraus as a composer whose work was derivative to a degree, several of the works recorded here representing his responses to other composers’ creativity rather than providing exposure to manifestations of his own individual genius. This is a splendidly entertaining disc but ultimately one that fails to answer many of the questions that the negligence of history poses about Kraus and the enduring significance of his originality.

​Founded in 1997, the Helsingin Barokkiorkesteri (Helsinki Baroque Orchestra) has developed during its seventeen-year history into one of Scandinavia’s finest period-instrument ensembles, building credentials that include collaborations with a number of Europe’s most renowned period-practice specialists. His leadership of the performances of the music on this disc, which traverses surprising stylistic versatility despite the brevity of Kraus’s career, verifies that Aapo Häkkinen, the orchestra’s Artistic Director since 2003, has earned a place among the ranks of the paragons of the historically-informed performance movement. Not surprisingly for a pupil of Bob van Asperen, his playing of fortepiano, harpsichord, and organ continuo on this disc is superb, and the obvious enthusiasm with which he takes on the thorniness of Kraus’s music permeates every moment of these performances. The musicians of Helsingin Barokkiorkesteri likewise prove the peers of their colleagues in the world’s best period-instrument bands, with no weaknesses in any of the sections of the orchestra. The string playing is appropriately stylish but also delightfully full-toned, and solo lines from violinists Dmitry Sinkovsky and Tuomo Suni, violist Aira Maria Lehtipuu, and cellists Jussi Seppänen and Heidi Peltoniemi are insightfully-phrased and unfailingly beautiful to hear. The woodwind, horn, and trumpet players also temper their unquestionable virtuosity with timbral sweetness. The orchestra’s playing is distinguished by prudently-shaped and consistently-maintained balances, and the musicians’ comfort with Maestro Häkkinen’s guidance engenders performances marked by awareness of the Sturm und Drang vehemence of Kraus’s music that does not impede observance of the underlying formality of these pieces.

The instrumental works offered here present the orchestra with opportunities to exhibit the full panoply of their abilities, and every player answers with a recital of his or her prime accomplishments. In the Overture from Kraus’s one-act opera Proseprin (VB 19), based upon a libretto by Johan Henric Kellgren that was drafted by Gustav III himself, the orchestra’s negotiations of the intricacies of the music are imposingly precise without seeming studied. Likewise, the orchestra’s performance of the Overture from the collaborative incidental music for Johan Magnus Lannerstierna’s comedy Äfventyraren (VB 32) is defined by tautness of rhythm and ensemble but sustains a gratifying element of unpredictability. The Overtures from a pair of Kraus’s musical homages to his royal patron are sharply-contrasted pieces, both of which require a lofty degree of technical achievement from the musicians: in Helsingin Barokkiorkesteri’s performances, the demands of both pieces are met with prowess to spare. The opening movement from the Kantate zum Geburtstage des Königs Gustav III (VB 41) is a suitably jubilant piece, but the ‘Introduzzione’ from Konung Gustav III Begrafnings-kantat (VB 42), Kraus’s musical response to the 1792 assassination of the monarch, invokes the composer’s rage, horror, and sadness—and perhaps also a suggestion of the fear of the terminal illness already gripping him. Kraus made use of music from an earlier ‘sinfonia da chiesa’ that included fugal material borrowed from the Overture to Albrechtsberger’s 1781 oratorio Die Pilger auf Golgotha [sometimes also cited, especially in Eighteenth-Century sources, as Die Pilgrime auf Golgatha], but his harmonic progressiveness goes far beyond Albrechtsberger’s idiom at its most galant. The despair in the music never disrupts the chic allure of the orchestra’s playing, but the zeal of the performance proclaims the momentousness of Kraus’s musical reaction to a national tragedy that was, for him, also profoundly personal.

Mezzo-soprano Monica Groop is one of Finland’s most cherished gifts to the musical world. Now in the third decade of an international career that began with her 1987 professional début as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther at Suomen Kansallisooppera (Finnish National Opera), she has thrilled audiences with performances of a wide repertory. Her extensive experience in Mozart rôles qualifies her as a natural advocate for Kraus’s vocal music, and from her first note on this disc her connection with these arias is apparent. The pair of Swedish arias sung by Ms. Groop are both reconstructions of lost or incomplete music. ‘Du i hvars oskuldsfulla blick’ (VB 30), intended for insertion into performances of Nils Sparrschöld’s comedy De Mexikanske Systrarna, is a charming piece that could credibly be slipped into the buffa scenes in Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, or any of Haydn’s operas, and Ms. Groop sings it with the skill of a practiced Cherubino. The manuscript of ‘Hör mina ömma suckar klaga’ (VB 26), its text taken from Karl Ristell’s drama Visittimman, was lost to fire in 1827, but Ms. Groop’s sterling performance justifies its resurrection. The Italian aria ‘Ma tu tremi’ (VB 63) is taken from Pietro Metastasio’s cantata La tempesta, and Ms. Groop’s incisive singing aptly reflects the storm-tossed imagery of the text. Another Metastasio libretto, Siroe, rè di Persia, most famously set by Hasse and, via an adaptation by Nicola Francesco Haym, by Händel, is the source of ‘Ch’io mai vi possa lasciar d’amare’ (VB 59). Händel’s version of the aria is likely to remain the more familiar, but Kraus’s aria deserves to be included in gutsy singers’ repertories. Kraus might have written the aria for Ms. Groop: she sings it with such authority that it seems her exclusive property. The Latin motet ‘Parvum quando cerno Deum’ (VB 5) is an appealing contemplation of the Blessed Mother’s exaltation in the presence of her son, and the radiance of Ms. Groop’s performances intimates maternal pride. The rondo ‘Du temps, qui détruit tout’ (VB 58) is Kraus’s only known concert aria in French, and though her French diction lacks the near-native command of her Italian singing she nobly gives voice to the composer’s panegyric to Gustav III. ‘Al mio bene’ (VB 55) is an arrangement of an aria composed by Johann Christian Bach for the soprano castrato Giusto Fernando Tenducci, who tutored Mozart in the art of singing during the composer’s stay in Paris in 1777 – 1778 and was sufficiently admired in Britain to have twice been the subject of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough. Kraus’s adaptation was likely intended for tenor or mezzo-soprano, and it is sung with both substance and subtlety by Ms. Groop. At this point in her career, her Stygian-timbred voice is not absolutely steady on sustained tones: nonetheless, she does not wobble, and the voice remains an evenly-produced, handsome instrument. The difficulties of Kraus’s music scarcely challenge Ms. Groop, but she allocates to her performances on this disc the technical meticulousness familiar from her Mozart portrayals and the interpretive integrity that molds her singing of music by Schubert and Mahler.

The caliber of Joseph Martin Kraus’s compositions was sufficient to earn him the dedicated sponsorship of Gustav III, the admiration of Franz Joseph Haydn, and, perhaps most tellingly, the efforts of a consortium of native Swedish rivals and their champions to prevent his return to Stockholm at the end of his half-decade ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe in the 1780s. As more of Kraus’s music has reentered global circulation in recent years, a fuller picture of the composer esteemed by Haydn as an equal of Mozart has emerged. Though not an ideal representation of the originality for which Kraus was renowned, particularly in works like his Viennese Symphonies in C minor (originally written in the then-rare key of C-sharp minor) and D major and unconventional Flute Quintet in D major, this disc is a commendable supplement to the composer’s expanding discography. It is also a testament to NAXOS’s continuing commitment to giving the music of overlooked composers world-class handling. Next, perhaps NAXOS might consider reuniting Monica Groop, Aapo Häkkinen, and Helsingin Barokkiorkesteri for historically-appropriate recordings of Kraus’s surviving operas…