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Giovanni Bria
Giovanni Bria

Concert Review: Lachen

Lachen, Switzerland: Tuesday 27 May 1997
The Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra remember Joachim Raff. It is not at all as eccentric as it may seem, above all that the Stuttgart Philharmonic should open the Zürich Summer of Music with a jubilee concert to celebrate Joachim Raff's 175th. birthday in a catholic church in Lachen (Canton Schwyz). After all, Raff's father came from Württemberg and Raff himself, who was born on 27 May 1822 in Lachen, spent an important part of his formative years in Stuttgart.

Anyway his contemporaries regarded Raff, whose path led him later via Weimar and Wiesbaden to Frankfurt, as a German composer. He himself expressed this clearly in the title [of the Symphony No.1] "For the Fatherland". This is not about Switzerland but looks foward to the then still-ununited Germany. Raff followed this work, finished in 1861, a year later with a Festival cantata, commemorating the 50th Jubilee of the battle of Leipzig. This piece could have easily been called "From Germany's woods and fields".Unlike his colleague Smetana, another protégé of Liszt and his junior by two years, in his cycle "Ma Vlást", Raff in his symphony's kept to the traditional style despite programmatic title . This concept aimed to blend Mendelsohn's romantic classicism with Liszt's idea of the symphonic poem. Raff was partly successful. After all, the "harmless" programme, reminding us partly of the rural idyll of Willhelm Leibl and also of Franz von Lenbach, was totally in accordance with the "Zeitgeist"!

Raff shared this musical patriotism with extremely diverse colleagues like Wagner, Bruckner or Brahms. He did not ignore his Swiss homeland. Long before the Alpine Symphony of Richard Strauss (who truly profited from Raff's clever instrumental technique as had Tchaikowski and Mahler) Raff had already written his 7th. Symphony "In the Alps" in 1875. Admittedly, the music is less descriptive than one can assume from the title "Wandering in the high mountains", "In the Inn", "On the lake" and "At the Schwingfest, Departure".

It was important for Giovanni Bria, the organizer of the Summer of Music on Lake Zürich and also the conductor of the opening concert, to perform this symphony at Raff's birthplace. Under his direction the Stuttgart Philharmonic pulled out all stops and, inspired by the spirit of the place, gave an interpretation of vivid colours and colourful intensity. Despite relatively measured tempi, Bria succeeded in maintaining tension to the end. Particularly impressive were the special effects of the sweeping densely worked first movement and the intensity of the finale, although the wistful Andante and the almost philosophical, dreaming Larghetto would have profited from a little more polish.

Altogether, however, it was obvious that Raff's symphonic writing has more to offer than a cleverly arranged Wagner-twisted mixture of Mendlesohn, Schuhmann and Liszt. In German speaking countries, however, its esthetic, which has nothing of a dominating, heavy, confessional character, seems strangely out of place. Raff's extensive movements always driving forwards, are in the first place brilliant orchestral music which develop their specific qualities, hidden under the smooth surface when they are interpreted in a contrasting way to Bruckner: elastic and light, as if they were by Rossini. Only then can they allow the listener to fly away and they become like a drug. This is the main attraction of Raff's 2nd. Cello Concerto, and this could only be performed thanks to the initiative of the Stuttgart Raff researcher Volker Tosta, who, taking the work which was composed in 1876 and of which only a manuscript copy existed, set it out on his computer and published it in his Edition Nordstern. The young soloist Yves Savary, who studied with Heinrich Schiff, found the right mood for the serenade-like light hearted piece, sometimes even with an air of neo-classicism, as if Raff had wanted to demonstrate that, even post-Wagner, it was possible to compose music as light as Mozart's. The solo cadenza of the finale, played brilliantly by Savary, was in no sense easy. If this interesting work had been arranged for fewer strings it would certainly have sounded more effective, but even so it represents an enrichment of today's repertoire.

The Stuttgart Philharmonic and their guest conductor were rewarded with a well earned ovation for their final piece, a theatre Overture "Ein feste Burg" op 127. Classical figures from the beautiful baroque church looked on quietly as the stirring swirls of the orchestra climbed triumphantly in the dashing brass of Luther's protestant hymn. The composer, Raff, born in a house on the lake not 50m from the church according to a commerative tablet, would surely have been satisfied with this melodious sound.

Werner Müller-Grimme

[Originally published in German in the Stuttgarter Zeitung of 28 May 1997 and subsequently in the Newsletter of the Joachim Raff Society]

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