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Alzenau church
St Justinas, Alzenau

Concert review - Alzenau

Alzenau, Germany: Friday 5 November 1999
This concert promised Rafficionados the rare prospect, possibly unique in the 20th. Century, of hearing some of Raff's a capella choral music - the Four Marian Antiphons WoO.27. The north Bavarian town of Alzenau was host this year to the 23rd. festival of the Fränkische Musiktage International Choir Forum and the venue for this concert was the town's St. Justinus church, its brown marble, gilt and white baroque splendour making an appropriate setting for the music being played.

The 42-strong Maulbronn Chamber Choir was directed by Jürgen Budday and it began the concert with the Raff work. To anyone used to Raff's mature compositional style from his piano, chamber or orchestral music, these four pieces would come as a surprise. Here was not romantic music dressed up in pseudo-holy clothes such as Gounod or Liszt might have penned but rather music written uncompromisingly in the comparatively severe traditional antiphonal chant mode, which Raff had perhaps experienced during his youth studying at the Jesuit Lyceum in Schwyz.

The first piece, Alma redemptoris Mater, was set to a gentle rhythm with a careful blending of the choral parts to produce a seamless sound world radiating serenity. The following Ave Regina coelorum was, within the confines of Raff's chosen restricted idiom, a more dramatic piece with much greater contrast between the parts and in the pace of the music overall. The third part, Regina coeli laetare, took this trend even further with alternating women's and men's contributions which, when they merged, saw the male chorus singing at a slower tempo reminiscent of plainchant in contrast with the faster alto & soprano parts - a very effective device which showed that Raff had ignored none of his usual feel for dramatic effect in this a capella form. The longest of the four pieces was the final work, Salve Regina, which marked a return to the sound world of the first piece with its gentle pace and lack of strong definition between the male and female voices, recalling the polyphonic italianate world of Palestrina. Overall though, 18 minutes of music which perhaps even the most ardent Raff enthusiast would have difficulty in recognising as being from the pen of the master and serving to demonstrate the breadth of his craft. The large audience's genuine appreciation of these very unfamiliar and, for Raff, rather uncharacteristic works was obvious.

The concert mixed a capella choral music with two organ sonatas, the first of which was Mendelssohn's short two movement Sonata no.3 in A. The silence which followed Thomas Gabriel's sensitive playing was unfortunate and undeserved. There followed the Maulbronn Choir's performance of Klaus Huber's Te Deum Laudamus - a setting of an old German text from 1530 to music which, in its mildly discordant way, was in stark contrast with the romantic works in the rest of the programme. There being no interval, there followed Gabriel's performance of Rheinberger's Organ Sonata no.2 in d which brought out the highly romantic character of the first three movements and especially so in the opening Agitato. After the closing Fugue, Gabriel was this time rewarded with enthusiastic applause. The final work on the programme was Rheinberger's magnificent Mass for two mixed choirs which was beautifully sung by the Maulbronn group and was rewarded with such extended applause that an encore was given... and the reward for Raff enthusiasts was that this was Raff's Ave Maria WoO.33.

This five minute piece, though no less polyphonic than the earlier Antiphons, was written in a more relaxed and romantic style with the strong individual melodic lines which one would expect of Raff, whilst still preserving its essentially religious purpose. An ideal closing item, then, for an unusual but satisfying concert.

Mark Thomas

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