The composer and poet Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) was an almost direct contemporary of Mozart. Born in Germany, he moved to Sweden aged 21 where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 36. Musically, he resembles Mozart too, though filtered through Gluck and Haydn (both of whom he met) and with a healthy dollop of Sturm und Drang.

Attached to the court of the music-loving King Gustav III, Kraus composed operas – one of them to a libretto by the king himself – and was appointed a vice-Kapellmeister. Among his other notable compositions is a funeral cantata composed following the king’s assassination at the famous masked ball that prompted Verdi’s opera. 

Naxos has done a decent job up until now of bringing attention to Kraus’ orchestral music, including symphonies and compositions for stage and ballet. However, with the arrival of this preliminary disc by Ensemble Theresia, a European Union period instrument ensemble for under 30s, the Kraus renaissance moves up a gear. Performances are sprightly, intonationally precise and full of character. Compared with their predecessors, the playing is lithe, dramatically flexible and the recording immediate, though wind and brass can feel a trifle distant from the strings.

Kraus belonged to a generation that believed the overture should carry weight and reflect what follows. The eight-minute overture to the prologue of his operatic masterpiece Aeneas i Carthago is a perfect example. Dark and brooding, its writhing lyrical lines presage the turbulent drama to come. It’s played with a real sense of purpose. The overture to the ballet Fiskarena which follows shows Kraus’ lighter side, with a charming central tune and lively rhythms. Contrast the grandiloquent overture to Soliman II complete with clangourous Turkish percussion.

Elsewhere, we get orchestral excerpts lifted from royal events, including a well-sprung overture to an ode for the king’s birthday and a pair of mournful introductions to different parts of his funeral cantata. CPO plans to record Kraus’ complete symphonic works over the coming years. This initial foray suggests we are in for a treat.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Joseph Martin Kraus
Works: Overtures
Performers: Theresia/Claudio Astronio
Label: CPO 5555792

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