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St. Gallen Tonhalle
St. Gallen Tonhalle

Concert review - St Gallen

St. Gallen, Switzerland: Sunday 20 May 2001
Every time one hears a Raff orchestral score played in the concert hall, one marvels that his music has been so neglected for so long. Audiences, most of whom no doubt are ignorant of Raff beforehand, invariably respond with real enthusiasm rather than just polite applause. His music, a century and a quarter since it was written, clearly still strikes a chord when it is given a chance to be heard. So it proved once again in the elegant city of St. Gallen in north eastern Switzerland, where the German Sudwest Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg under Urs Schneider gave a rousing performance of the Symphony No.7, subtitled "In the Alps".

St. Gallen's elegantly comfortable Tonhalle was an intimate venue for this concert in the Bodensee Musikfestival series on a warm May evening. Beforehand, Matthias Wiegandt gave a fascinating illustrated talk introducing Raff and his symphony to listeners unfamiliar with either. The first half of the concert itself began with an extensive work by a Swiss composer even less well known than Raff - Franz Tischhauser, now 80 years old. His four movement "Seldwyliana - Ghostly times in a previously happy little town" dated from 1961 and was 35 minutes of fun in the best Dohnanyi tradition. Totally approachable, its virtuoso orchestral style sounded like a series of Richard Strauss scores for Bugs Bunny cartoons - Schneider and his orchestra clearly enjoyed playing it.

St. Gallen native Adrian Oetiker, was the soloist in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto in d minor op.40. Once difficult to avoid in concert programmes, the old warhorse seems to have become something of a rarity of late - but this performance reminded one why it was so popular for so long. To impeccable and vigorous orchestral support, Oetiker played the piece for all it was worth - no genteel early-Victorian reserve here. The passion and drive of his playing once or twice led him to be cavalier over his phrasing but in such a romantic, barnstorming interpretation that could easily be forgiven. The audience loved it all - his short solo encore was well deserved.

Written by Raff in conscious homage to the country of his youth and premiered 125 years ago, the 7th. Symphony began its Swiss revival in an acclaimed performance in Lachen almost exactly three years ago, under Raff guru Giovanni Bria. Schneider, also hailing from St. Gallen, will be remembered by Raff enthusiasts as the conductor on most of Marco Polo's CD cycle of the symphonies. Unfortunately, his 7th. was one of the least persuasive amongst those recordings, so his live interpretation eight years on was awaited with trepidation by some of the Raffianers present…

The long first movement "Wandering in the high mountains" began well, its motto theme depicting the grandeur of the Alps was forcefully played, the thunder echoing between the peaks and the alpenhorns calling across the high meadows beautifully captured by the single timpanist and four French horns. Whilst the remaining melodic material employed by Raff is perhaps not so arresting, it was persuasively presented by the Baden players with highly effective variations in both tempi and dynamics. The fugal section towards the movement's close was very well integrated into the whole and the eventual return of the opening material was grandly dramatic. Schneider's lacklustre recording session would not be repeated - there was real dynamism is this interpretation and the faces of the audience showed that Raff was once again working his magic on open-minded listeners.

Coming straight after full-blooded Mendelssohn played with gusto, no clearer refutation could be sought of the old canard that Raff was merely a Mendelssohn imitator. The lush sonorities, vivid scene painting and great dynamic range of this movement all marked its creator out as a strong, individual voice. More than that, the braying brass had a distinctly Tchaikovskian sound, lending further evidence to support the claim of Raff influencing the Russian’s style.

The first half of the second movement "In the Inn" presents problems for audience and conductor alike. It's steady pace suggests that it's the slow movement - but no, it takes the place of a scherzo. And what is a conductor to make of the Andante quasi Allegro marking? Schneider kept the tempo deliberate, but on the right side of monotony, with a delicious lilt introduced by the cellos on their entry. The large body of strings did tend to obscure the detail provided by the other instruments in places, however. Suddenly, after the slower central section, the piece came alive. There was an urgency to the strong momentum in the build up to the great swinging melody of the climax in which the leaning string phrases again reminded one forcefully of the intensity of Tchaikovsky.

The sonorous start provided by the lower strings in the Larghetto "On the Lake" movement signalled that in Schneider’s eyes this was a dark and brooding piece of water. He stopped the pace becoming too lethargic but was unable, again, to prevent the string sound overpowering the wind and brass contributions - particularly important in a movement in which the strings predominate. The shimmering first climax was finely judged, however, and the darker second one, with its drum roll hinting at thunder not far away, was equally satisfying.

Raff’s delicate chamber orchestration of the dancing start to the last movement "At the Schwingfest" found the exposed winds rather ragged - perhaps a little forgivable because here Schneider decided on a cracking pace, very much faster than in his recording. The effect of this, as the movement progressed, was to energise the piece. We were treated to a joyous country festival played with lots of attack and humour. The smiles on the faces of Schneider and his cellists as they introduced their gallumphing theme was good to see - they understood that Raff was portraying a good humoured wrestling bout. At the very end of this happy, fizzing piece the Badeners slowed the pace for the "Farewell" section and played the reprise of the first movement material with affection and tenderness - though perhaps not the hint of regret which should also be there.

Schneider, blessed with a much better orchestra than in his recording session, produced for his appreciative audience a fine version of this, potentially one of Raff’s more problematic symphonies. He was obviously delighted with the orchestra's playing. Rumour had it that there was only time for one rehearsal, in which case the result was truly a triumph for them; they came close to matching Stadlmair’s Bambergers in their instinctive feel for the music. Hopefully, those in the audience previously ignorant of Raff were persuaded to search out more of his music. The Rafficionados there were delighted to be able to take the 7th. Symphony off their list of Raff "also rans"!

Mark Thomas

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