Germany: Saturday 14 October 2000
The Joachim Raff Society's fourth Annual General Meeting and piano recital was held in the lovely German spa town of Wiesbaden and, as in earlier years, the Villa Clementine proved an appropriately intimate venue for the day. It began with the formalities of the Annual General Meeting which were followed, after a quick lunch, by Matthias Wiegandt's reading of Dr. Albrecht von Massow's paper entitled: "Joachim Raff: a Haydnesque element in an angst-ridden era". This provoked a spirited and erudite debate about Raff's stylistic stance in contrast with that of his contemporaries, leading on to a discussion about the reasons for the posthumous decline in Raff's reputation.
An hour's break gave an opportunity to enjoy the Autumn sunshine in the park stretching between the Villa Clementine and Wiesbaden's Kurhaus, before joining the audience crammed into the Villa's intimate recital room. Freiburg pianist Matthias Thiemel's recital featured an programme of works by Raff and by his employee at Frankurt's Hoch Conservatory, Clara Schumann, together with a couple by her husband Robert. The first half was given over almost entirely to Raff, whilst the Schumanns held sway after the interval.
[Extracts from his performances of the Raff works can be heard by following the links]
Raff's pioneering activity as a promoter and arranger of baroque music was illustrated with four movements from his transcription of J.S.Bach's d minor suite for cello No.2 WoO.30. The contemplative Prélude and stately Allemande and Courante were perhaps overshadowed by the virtuoso complexities of the concluding Menuett in Thiemel's lightening interpretation. The contrast with the high romance of the Ballade in D from Raff's Album Lyrique op.17 pieces could hardly have been more telling. After a lyrical opening, here was stormy, passionate music from Raff's early years. The severe, rather pedestrian Präludium and Fugue of Clara Schumann which followed was like a glass of water between successive full bodied wines.
The contrasts continued in this well-planned programme. Not just between Raff and the Schumanns, but between Raff's Wiesbaden works and those of his earlier period. Of the former, "Fabliau", the second piece of his Suite de Morceaux pour petite mains op.75 and a favourite of the salons at one time, illustrated both the appeal of Raff's music in his day and the reasons for his mixed reputation. Even when played as sensitively as here the opening melody, whilst catchy, soon bordered on triteness, even more so on its return after a pretty central episode decorated by some fiendish filigree figurations. The two Rhapsodies Élegiaques op.22 from Raff's pre-Weimar era totally restored faith in the composer, however. Here in Thiemel's robust and passionate interpretation were two wonderful pieces - the first in particular a great rediscovery. Reminiscent of both Schumann and Liszt whilst imitating neither, this tour de force was dramatic and tender by turns over its 10 minute or so length, finally ebbing away in the delicate closing pages. If Liszt was slightly to the fore in the first, then the gentler romantic second Rhapsodie owed more to Schumann, though always Raff's individual voice was to the fore. Here was the young Raff as an ardent romantic spirit, and Thiemel's sensitive interpretations made the strongest possible case for these great works.
The Valse Favorite op.118 of 1864 was sandwiched between the two Rhapsodies and, again, illustrated Raff's familiar salon vein. Here was a work written to make money and its easy melody, charming harmonies but demanding piano writing typified such works in his oeuvre. Thiemel carried it off with aplomb and humour whilst not trying to hide the contrast with the two Rhapsodies which framed it. He chose to close the first half with one of Raff's piano works which managed to survive precariously in the repertoire into the 20th. century - "La Fileuse" the second of the two pieces in op.157. Thiemel's young lady clearly had some romantic tryst on her mind as she sat at the spinning wheel - the work was played with more fire and drama than normal and, though some of its "prettiness" was missing, it was on the whole better for such a robust approach.
In the second half the Schumanns dominated with the heartfelt Ballade from Clara's Soirées Musicales op.6 being followed by Robert's two Romances op.8 - the one a tumbling dash, the other calm and serene. The final Raff work was another welcome discovery - the fourth of his Five Eglogues op.105. The insistent heartbeat ostinato in the left hand underpinned a deeply poetic and highly effective romantic outpouring which spoke of some old half-remembered tragedy. Another "find". The four concluding works from Clara's pen were her large scale Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann op.20, the Romanze op.11 no.2, dramatic and charming by turns, the later Romanze op.21 no.1 with its surprisingly Magyar colouring and finally the carefree Mazurka, also from Soirées Musicales.
Throughout Thiemel's performance was committed and passionate, if only occasionally not totally secure, and it completely merited the extended applause from his highly appreciative audience. As encores he gave a night piece by Bartok and a tiny witty Scriabin Prelude, closing the evening with a smile.