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Joseph Martin KRAUS (1756 - 1792): "Begräbniskantate" (Funeral Cantata)

Loriana Castellano, Hanna Husáhr, sopranoa; Krystian Adam, tenora; Johannes Schendel, bassa
RIAS Kammerchora; l'arte de mondo
Dir: Werner Ehrhardt

rec: May 13 - 16, 2013, Leverkusen, Bayer Kulturhaus
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883764542 (© 2013) (69'09")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Begravningskantat for Gustavus III (VB 42)a; Symphony in c minor (SorgMusik / Symphonie funèbre) (VB 148)

"I have one of his symphonies, which I am keeping in memory of one of the greatest geniuses I have ever known. I own only this work of his, but I know that he has written many admirable pieces". Thus spoke Joseph Haydn about his colleague Joseph Martin Kraus, who was born in Germany, but made a career in Sweden. This disc includes two pieces which Kraus composed in 1792 which was an eventful year. On 29 March King Gustavus III of Sweden died as a result of a murder attempt and on 15 December Kraus himself died due to tuberculosis.

On Friday 16 March 1792 Gustavus III became the victim of a murder attempt during a masked ball at the Stockholm Opera. Behind this were members of the aristocracy feeling unhappy about the reforms of a monarch who was under the influence of the Enlightenment. It was Kraus' task to compose the music for the funeral service. This resulted in the Symphony in c minor and the Begravningskantat for Gustavus III.

Kraus received some of his musical education in Mannheim, studied at various universities and published a collection of poems and a drama. He also composed two oratorios. It was not easy to find an official position. In 1781 he was elected to the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. It was his opera Proserpin which brought him the position of assistant kapellmästare at court and at the Royal Opera. Gustavus sent him on a journey through Europe to broaden his horizon. During his travels he met Haydn, and it must be at this occasion that the latter came in the possession of the symphony he referred to in the quotation which opens this review article.

Kraus is considered one of the most original composers of his time. That comes to the fore, for instance, in his treatment of harmony. The two works which are performed at the present disc are highly expressive. According to Kraus' biographer Fredrik Samuel Silverstolpe Haydn was greatly impressed when he became acquainted with his funeral music: "When the great Haydn read this music, he was keenly moved and repeatedly exclaimed: 'Oh, how beautiful! Oh, how new!'".

The programme ends with the Symphony in c minor which was actually performed first during the funeral ceremonies. It was played during the lying in state of Gustavus in the Riddarholmen Church. Characteristic for this SorgMusik (Symphonie funèbre) is the inclusion of parts for horns and trumpets which have to play with mutes, and timpani coperti, kettledrums covered in black crepe. The scoring and the key of C minor lend this work its sombre character. That is even enhanced by the inclusion of a chorale as its third movement. It is not clear whether this chorale - included as funeral psalm in the Swedish Hymnal of 1695 - was sung during the performance. The melody of this chorale returns in the last movement, played by the oboe as cantus firmus and in the second half as the subject of a fugue. It is not without reason that this symphonie has become one of Kraus' best-known compositions.

The funeral cantata is no less expressive. It was performed several times from 15 to 19 May when the church was open to the public which could see the decorations, exposing the King's membership of Freemasonry. The cantata is divided into two parts, which both open with an instrumental introduzione. Singers from the court performed the solo parts. These are recitatives and arias, mainly for soprano and tenor. In addition there are duet for the two singers and a quartet for two sopranos, tenor and bass. The choir also has an important role to play: the first part includes two choruses, and the cantata ends with another chorus. The choir also participates in two arias and the quartet. The music is full of expressive gestures, such as Seufzer and suspensions. The orchestral score includes some strong dynamic outbursts. The text is mostly a lament on the events which led to Gustavus' death and its effects, and a tribute to the King. There are hardly any religious connotations, except in the closing chorus: "Lord of lords! May the brazen brow of vice be struck down by your thunderbolt!" This phrase is illustrated by winds and timpani.

This recording of the complete funeral music has to be welcomed, considering its quality and its historical importance. I am less impressed by the performances. The orchestral contribution deserves unequivocal praise: the nuances in the score are fully explored, and the symphony is given an outstanding performance. It is - as so often - the vocal parts which give reason for criticism. The choir is very good, but could have been more transparent. That is not the effect of its size: with 35 singers it is even smaller than the choir of 48 which participated in the performances in 1792. The soloists are singing well enough, but their performances are marred by an incessant and too wide vibrato which is unstylish and is certainly not suitable for this repertoire. The text may not be devoid of drama, this is no opera.

I can't recommend this disc without considerable reservations.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Krystian Adam
RIAS Kammerchor
l'arte del mondo

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