Stuttgart, Germany: Thursday 23 May 2002
Stuttgart's claims to significance in Raff's life are twofold. He left the city in some secrecy in 1848 after little over a year's stay, having become involved in political activity. More positively, it was here that he made his lifelong friendships with Kunigunde Heinrich and the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Now, posthumously, the city can claim a third distinction - being the venue of a ground-breaking evening showcasing a wide variety of Raff's chamber music in a series of very fine performances.
The distinctive circular concert hall of the Wurttemburg capital's Hochschule for Music, housed in its landmark tower, was gratifyingly well filled for this marathon evening led by the distinguished violinist, and professor at the Hochschule, Ingolf Turban. The first half of the programme featured music for violin and piano, in which Turban's lively and almost balletic playing style was contrasted with Jascha Nemtsov's imperturbable prescence at the piano.
They began with a totally unconventional rendition of that old Raff perennial - the Cavatina from the Six Morceux op.85. Gone was the usual sentimentality and sugary tone. Instead, Turban played the work much faster than usual, and though cloying sentiment was missing, passion certainly wasn't. It was an object lesson in looking afresh at a familiar old piece and finding that there was more than one way of interpreting it. A very encouraging start.
The Hochschule's Professor Dörte Schmidt then gave a fascinating talk introducing Raff to the, no doubt, largely ignorant audience and focusing in particular on his chamber music and his use of wit and humour in it. The main work of the first half followed - possibly the first performance of the Violin Sonata No.3 in a century. In many ways, the work is typical of Raff. In four movements and lasting around 25 minutes it begins with an Allegro featuring a characterically memorable opening idea - in this case a dancing nine-note motif, which surfaces repeatedly throughout this largely genial and untroubled movement. Turban and Nemtsov played with an easy and un-flashy virtuosity, entirely in keeping with the piece's character.
The following Allegro assai was Raff near his best - a fleet perpetuum mobile brought to a sudden stop by a meltingly lyrical trio before it reasserts itself (the transition beautifullymanaged by Turban). The Andante quasi Larghetto slow movement, so often the centrepiece of a Raff work, didn't come off as convincingly as one felt it should somehow. It's vaguely Hungarian turn of phrase and yearning lilt were, one suspects, not given enough poetry and softness by Turban. A disappointingly brusque reading of a piece which needed to be lingered over to realise its full beauty. The pair were back on form for the celebratory finale - Allegro vivace - returning us to the dance rhythms of the first movement. An interesting work of Raff's which had many lovely moments, brought to life in a generally impeccable performance.
The first half of this long concert was brought to a close with the first of Raff's Three Duos for Piano and Violin on Themes from Richard Wagner's Operas op.63 - in this case "The Flying Dutchman". It seems odd to record that this was in some ways a more successful work on first hearing than the forgoing Sonata - but so it seemed. Raff's interweaving of his own material with Wagner's was satisfyingly clever and unobtrusive. The work never came across as a mere pot pourri. Turban's lyricism and Nemtsov's urbane support were ideally suited to the work's style and it's eight minutes passed quickly.
The second half began with two movements from what, in its time, was one of Raff's most famous chamber works - the String Quartet No.7 Die schöne Müllerin. The Sikorski Quartet played the slow third movement (describing the miller maid herself) and the lightening fast second movement (the mill) with impeccable ensemble. They seemed content to let the music speak for itself and this is meant as no criticism - their performance radiated the charm with which the whole work abounds.
Perhaps the piece in the programme most eagerly awaited by Raff enthusiasts was the String Sextet in which Ingolf Turban and Christian Sikorski (another Hochschule professor) were joined by two Violas and a brace of Cellos (also all on the staff of the Hochschule). Written when Raff was at the height of his powers, in the same year as the String Octet and the Lenore Symphony, it promised much. Neither Raff nor his interpreters disappointed. The String Sextet merits a place amongst Raff's finest creations and the six interpreters deserved the rapturous applause with which they were rewarded. Another four movement work of 25 minutes duration, the Sextet begins with an Allegro radiating bonhomie and goodwill. The smiling themes bounced from soloist to soloist in witty counterplay - clearly enjoyed by the players themselves. The scherzo Allegro molto was taken at a breakneck speed as the opening motif hopped from cellos to violas to violins. Sikorski and Turban were particularly persuasive here and their broad grins as they played the rustic dance trio over a pizzicato cello accompaniment were a delight to see. The Larghetto slow movement was taken at quite a sprightly pace, but this seemed to suit the kaleidoscopic variations of which it was composed. The two cellists, Rudolf Gleißner and Heinrich Kammerer, particularly excelled here and once again the casual skill of the the two violinists was a pleasure to witness. Raff closes this wonderful work with a joyous helter-skelter Vivace finale in which all six instruments are given no respite. At the end of the coruscating closing pages he pauses momentarily before an almost inconsequential final phrase ends the work with a knowing wink. The thunderous applause which greeted this was, one hopes, as much a recognition of Raff's genius here as it was gratitude to Turban and his team in presenting it with such virtuosity, wit and intelligence.
The final work is much more familiar - indeed, it has probably never totally left the repertoire. The Sinfonietta op.188 for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons is written in similar vein to the Sextet - joviality and wit pervade the work. It was played here by staff and pupils of the Hochschule who demonstrated all its charm and good humour without, perhaps, adding any interpretive insights to those already familiar from recordings. The ensemble, not always immaculate, improved as the work progressed and all ten instrumentalists played with an enthusiasm which was palpable. All movements but the lovely Larghetto were taken at a keen, but not inappropriate, pace and the slow movement itself was a delight as melody after melody tumbled out. In such a team effort it is perhaps unfair to single out individuals but the 1st. flute Jean-Claude Gérard and 1st. oboe Ingo Goritzki made particularly fine contributions. As they took their well-earned bows, the Hochschule staff members looked as if they had enjoyed themselves and the students looked relieved, but all had reason to be pleased with a lively performance of this good natured work.