Joseph Martin Kraus, the German-born Swedish composer who was an almost exact contemporary of Mozart, is primarily known as a late classical symphonist of extraordinary importance, and heretofore this is where recording of his output has been concentrated. On Bis' Joseph Martin Kraus: The Complete Piano Music, pianist Ronald Brautigam comes to terms with the slim amount of keyboard music that belongs to Kraus, a cycle previously addressed on Naxos by pianist Jacques Després on a modern instrument. On the Bis, Brautigam uses a reproduced Walther & Sohn fortepiano built by Paul McNulty, an 1802 instrument that has a sound almost indistinguishable from that of a modern piano, except for its more limited range and shorter decay time. This seems to suit Kraus' keyboard music, which is rich in ideas but spindly in texture, a bit better than a modern instrument. Likewise, Després interpretations of Kraus' music sound read through at times and betray a sense of less than complete familiarity. This is not a challenge for Brautigam, who clearly knows, and loves, these willful and eccentric pieces of Kraus.
The main keyboard works of Kraus are his two piano sonatas, in E and E flat, respectively, which are gigantic in size in the context of the 1780s when they first appeared, and are equal to some of Beethoven's sonatas in terms of ambition and emotional intensity, although are still longer than most of them. Brautigam emphasizes speed in this music, which is a good thing because that is what one needs to make the hair-raising harmonic content of it work. Després' interpretations are clunkier and halting, particularly in the Scherzo con Variazioni, which takes him almost four minutes more to play than Brautigam. With all of the speed in this music, and the sound of this instrument, one might be well-advised to take Joseph Martin Kraus: The Complete Piano Music in at least three doses as after awhile it may seem like it's all going past in a blur. Nevertheless, this is great eighteenth century keyboard music, and for the moment, there is no one playing it better than Brautigam. Bis' sound, as usual, is superb.