Rapperswil, Switzerland: Sunday 23 January 2005
This historic town on the banks of Zürichsee is rich in Raff associations. It was here that he had his first job, as a teacher. The beautifully restored home of his friends the Curti brothers still nestles beneath the high walls of the town's imposing castle. From the wide windows of the castle's Rittersaal it is easy to pick out Lachen, his birthplace, across the lake. What better venue, then, to hear one of his finest creations, the Piano Quintet op.107?
This Sunday afternoon concert featured the Ensemble Il Trittico, already familiar to Raff enthusiasts from their well regarded recording of his four piano trios (Arte Nova 74321888332 - review). They were joined by violinist Isabelle Ladewig and Patrick Jüdt, viola, in a programme which followed Raff's only quintet with Dvoràk's Second Piano Quintet op.81.
After an appropriately sonorous start, a brisk pace was set for the opening Allegro mosso assai of Raff's work. In a forceful, intelligent reading Il Trittico recognised the need to keep the momentum going, but they were never afraid to relax the pace from time to time in the movement's more expansive passages. Daniel Pezzotti's warm cello tone deserves particular praise, underpinning as it did so much of this piece.
The final dash in the closing pages of the first movement was echoed by the frenetic speed of the Allegro vivace, quasi Presto which followed. All little more lightness would have prevented this becoming as hard driven as it was, but it was undeniably exciting and was played with great precision. The more reflective trio was in welcome contrast - the conversational exchanges amongst the strings adding to the delicacy of the passage. The build up of tension which heralded the return of the faster material was particularly well wrought, the movement ending in a mad dash and an audible exhalation from the audience.
Jan Shultsz's piano playing made him the star of the slow movement, which features one of its composer's most beautiful melodies. Taken at a leisurely pace, allowing each passing beauty to be savoured, Il Trittico managed to wring every last drop of emotion from this wonderful piece whilst playing with great refinement and particular sensitivity to its dynamics.
In sharp contrast, the finale was taken at a cracking pace. Despite its outwardly rumbustious character, there can be a faintly classical austerity to it, but skillful instrumental interplay and fine ensemble produced a confection of warm jollity and wit which proved to be a very satisfying conclusion to one of the finest Raff concert performances I have heard.
Dvorák's glorious A major Piano Quintet was written a quarter of a century after Raff's and is one of the staples of the literature. Once again, Il Trittico produced a reading which combined excitement and tenderness. The warmly lyrical first movement was suffused with Bohemian colouring, the intermittent fast paced episodes emerging naturally from the landscape, rather than being the sudden isolated spells of frantic activity they can often be.
The Dumka slow movement was played with great subtlety, its ever varying textures and tempi leading to a close of Schubertian beauty. A fleeting Furiant scherzo, played with appropriate deftness, left a smile on the face and prepared one for a fizzing finale in which every player grasped their moment to shine, whilst never disturbing the overall ensemble. Although there seemed to be less emotional depth in this performance than in the Raff, it was a fine rendition and special mention should be made of Il Trittico's violinist, Jonathan Allen, who played masterfully despite suffering a broken rib.
The extended applause which greeted both works was recognition of great music making and of great music. Whilst I am conscious that a continuous paean of praise makes for dull reading, I have found it hard to find anything much to criticise in these fine performances. We can only hope that Il Trittico's interpretation of the Raff Quintet will find its way onto disk - it was so much more echte Raff than Ensemble Villa Musica's dreary rendition (MDG 304 1181 - review).