Bamberg, Germany: Thursday 21 December 2000
The posters advertising the pre-Christmas concert in their beautiful little city in Franconia may well have puzzled many Bambergers. The stolid Bavarians no doubt packed the modern and airy Konzerthalle to hear their famous symphony orchestra under guest conductor Hans Stadlmair accompany returning favorite Vitali Berzon in Tchaikovsky's 1st. Piano Concerto. Having to hear an unknown 2nd. Symphony from an equally unknown Raff was, one guesses, merely part of the price they had to pay to hear such a favorite concerto. By the time the concert ended, many would have been given a lot to think about! Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony will by now be familiar to Raff enthusiasts. They have already featured in two well regarded CDs of Raff's music (Tudor 7077 and Tudor 7086) and more are planned. The 2nd. Symphony is a future recording project and, on the strength of this thrilling performance, it's one that every Raffianer should await with impatience.
Stadlmair, conducting from memory, clearly conceived this as a work written on a grand scale and the broad flowing tempi of the opening movement emphasised its architecture, without losing sight of the beauties of the moment. The hall's excellent acoustic and the Bamberger's precise playing brought out every detail in the score. In this movement in particular one could, with the benefit of Stadlmair's energetic conducting, hear this piece as a true precursor to its more famous successor, the "Im Wald". With great dynamic contrasts, exciting climaxes and note perfect playing, the Allegro was Raff played to perfection.
Stadlmair's steady pace for the glorious opening of the slow movement gave it a welcome forward momentum which allowed the subsequent variations in tempi to seem more dramatic whilst also being entirely natural. The central climax had a strong tragic element which was expertly highlighted making the solace of the return of the opening hymn all the greater. This was music making of power and passion.
The Bambergers played the scherzo for all it was worth, with the outer sections taken at an exhilarating breakneck pace - in particular the virtuoso woodwind played with delightful precision and puckishness. Though Raff's scherzos are sometimes labeled Mendelssohn imitations, Stadlmair brought out the Beethovenian heritage in this robust, muscular piece which was over all too briefly.
finale began with pomp but without pomposity - the stately introduction
an appropriate interlude between the whirlwind scherzo and the main finale
which was played only slightly slower. This was full of incident and
excitement and, if the Bamberg strings were once or twice momentarily
left in disarry by Stadlmair's pace, the overall effect was of a fitting
close to a truly grand work. The blazing brass were particularly prominent
at the Symphony's rousing conclusion.
The audience, perhaps diffident at first, were clearly enthused by the end - calling back Stadlmair three times in a well deserved ovation. His orchestra played with gusto, as if Raff was in their blood - their verve and precision a delight. Matthias Wiegandt has called for a distinct performing tradition for Raff. With Stadlmair's interpretation we had an illustration of it - Raff not sounding like anybody but himself: and what a distinctive and powerful voice he has. This symphony, which from Schneider's humdrum CD recording comes over as a worthy but perhaps one dimensional piece, is revealed as a fine and powerful creation.
After the interval, the audience revelled in Berzon's Tchaikovsky. Stadlmair (with a score this time) provided workmanlike support from a orchestra obviously very familiar with this old war-horse. Berzon approached it in a heavy handed manner, however, finding little poetry in the music and - in stark contrast to the Raff - emphasising its episodic nature. He seemed most at home in the fortissimo bravura passages - but even so the finale was thrown away in an almost perfunctory way. Nonetheless he received such tumultuous applause that he rewarded the audience with two short solo encores - again played without much finesse.
One wonders what a listener ignorant of the works and their composers would have made of the evening's music. He would be excused for feeling that the Symphony was the "greater" work on the strength of these performances alone. That would be not only a tribute to Stadlmair's interpretation of the Raff and a criticism of Berzon's playing. Whilst not denigrating the towering genius of Tchaikovsky, it would also perhaps be a recognition that Raff in the right hands can demonstrate genius too.