Raff maven Dr Alan Krueck has written a typically entertaining and penetrating review of the groundbreaking performances of Raff's Festmarsch and Symphony No.10 Zur Herbstzeit by Arizona-based orchestra Musica Nova, under their conductor Warren Cohen. The concert also featured a winning performance of Adolf Henselt's Piano Concerto, featuring soloist Janice Weber. The venue was the Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale.
Below is an abridged version, giving just Dr Krueck's views on the performances of the two Raff works. The much more extensive full review, which includes his report on the Henselt performance is available here.
Scottsdale, Arizona, USA: Sunday 26 October 2008
The opening work on the concert was most appropriate and satisfying: the Festmarsch, Op. 139 of Joachim Raff, conducted by Peter Carlston, a member of the organization who had won the management’s annual lottery for guest conducting a work on one of the programs. Mr. Carlston certainly knew his job and Raff’s Festmarsch came off with wonderful élan, a perfect indication of what could be expected in the expansive symphony which was to follow. As this person listened to the Festmarsch there was a feeling of great satisfaction that he was not sitting through another rendition of the overture to Die Meistersinger, for the Festmarsch is not a mere piece d’occasion, but a genuine symphonic edifice sporting yet another of Raff’s memorable lyric melodies as contrast to the more festal sounds. Perhaps it is worth noting that Raff employs nothing but tympani as percussion, eschewing the expected raucous of cymbals, triangle, bass drum et al and it is doubtful that any audience member was anything but elated by the dignified exuberance of the piece delivered so superbly by the orchestra. One minor point of criticism: there were no printed program notes for any of the works on the concert, simply the listings and this was a bit unfortunate regarding the Festmarsch, since neither Peter Carlston nor Warren Cohen delivered any verbal observations on it.
It was, of course, the performance of Zur Herbstzeit (At Autumn Time), the Symphony No. 10 in F minor, Op. 213 of Joachim Raff which attracted this writer to the Arizona desert. The performance eliminates now a lifetime wish to hear the work at least once in live performance (and the list still includes others like Felix Draeseke’s Symphonia Tragica and Vincent d’Indy’s Second Symphony in B-flat major, not to mention Raff’s Im Walde and Lenore symphonies). If there are other conductors as capable and enterprising as Warren Cohen perhaps some of these wishes will be realized, but it also takes an orchestra management of sophistication and dedication to the concept that there is great music beyond the museum relics of ubiquitous standard repertoire. Cohen is indeed fortunate that the Musica Nova organization not only stands behind him but – so far – has been able to find the all important financial support needed for continued ventures.
That being said, this reviewer admits to a bit of apprehension about the performance of Raff’s 10th Symphony when he arrived as the orchestra was rehearsing the third movement Elegie : the tempo struck me as dangerously languorous, particularly at the episode of which Tchaikovsky so fondly took advantage in the slow movement of his own Fifth Symphony. Apprehensions were raised as Cohen started the first movement and continued with a tempo slower than any to be encountered in the CD recordings. Spirits were raised (no pun intended) during rehearsal of the Gespenster Reigen (Ghostly Round Dances) where the enjoyment of the orchestra was apparent throughout. The fourth movement rehearsal also aroused some doubts, but not in regard to interpretation: there it was some unfortunately sloppy playing in the brass, the trumpets in particular, though the horns had a few bad blowings as well. With these impressions intact I had certain misgivings about the final product the next afternoon.
As the cliché goes: all’s well that ends well and, I’m happy to report, Zur Herbstzeit came off beautifully at the public performance. Though this listener still found the tempo of the first movement too slow for his own taste, Cohen’s idea about tempi did indeed facilitate appreciation of Raff’s wonderful delineation of line in his orchestration. Climaxes and transitions were managed with logic and control: the Eindrücke und Empfindungen
(Impressions and Sensations) of the movement’s title were conveyed to the benefit of each listener’s imaginative interpretation, though Cohen had made some choice suggestions in the spoken commentary which served as program information in lieu of printed notes. Raff’s intuition in
orchestral evocation of intent is marvelously mirrored by the general lightness of tone throughout this ravishing movement: it is only upon consideration of this that such reaction may be because Raff eliminates trombones in the movement. Cohen took the repeat which for this listener is a must. The slow tempo actually did gain a sense of the appropriate in the course of the music. The woodwinds of Musica Nova had particularly effective ensemble delivery throughout and the string sound was first class.
With Halloween just around the corner, Cohen’s preliminary commentary played upon the spookish in the second movement, but was not overdone, especially since he artfully called the audience’s to its palindrome design. For this listener Raff never wrote a bad scherzo and certainly Gespenster Reigen is at the top of the list. In it one is again taken by Raff’s masterly sense of appropriate texture: a third flute (piccolo) is called for, trumpets are dismissed and trombones added. The gentle tympani tapping of the rhythmic first motive so genially answered by its gruff ascension through the lower strings finds irresistible extension in the dancing motive of the bassoons. As the movement unfolds it is difficult to imagine anyone not being swept along by Raff’s thematic invention, invention which culminates after introduction of chorale like elements in one of Raff’s most glorious melodies – each your heart out Brahms! As the movement continues to fulfill its arch design, the instrumentation grows ever more felicitous.
The woodwind counterpoint of Musica Nova was absolutely virtuosic with Cohen beautifully balancing textures on the way to the pianissimo conclusion.
Elegie, the third movement, is an incomparable masterpiece of lyricism beyond verbal description. Written after the premiere of the symphony to replace the original slow movement (in itself a fine piece, though only published in 2003 as a separate Elegie) ostensibly because of considerations fostered by his wife. This replacement, in which heavy brass and tympani are absent, unfolds with ever increasing passion throughout its basic three episodes. It was with this movement that this critic had the greatest apprehension, since the tempi chosen by Cohen at the rehearsal the preceding day could have proven calamitous. How wonderful it was to note a more appropriate tempo in the public performance: there was no radical alteration, simply enough of an adjustment to allow Cohen’s interpretation of the music to find its justification. The strings responded gloriously, the blend with woodwinds faultless, the climaxes true catharses: the movement truly fulfilled.
Even the most dedicated Raff advocate cannot deny that Raff’s orchestral finales can occasionally be a letdown after movements of pure genius in a work. One may choose for oneself which to cite, but the finale to Zur Herbstzeit, Die Jagd der Menschen (Men on the Hunt), is definitely not one of them and it is basically the reason why this listener has found Zur Herbstzeit the most satisfying of the symphonies in Raff’s seasons cycle. Again Raff’s subtitles for the section divisions of the movement, Auszug, Rast, Jagd, Hallali, Rückkehr (Departure, Rest, Hunt, Hunting Calls, Return) are suggestive and one may envision any descriptive aspects one wishes as did Warren Cohen in his pre-performance introduction of the symphony, offering, among other ideas, a picture of galloping horses and barking-yapping dogs as the orchestra races headlong throwing off grace note accentuations (starting just after letter N in the score) – had never thought of it myself, but enjoyed the idea! The movement is perfect in its length with well judged episodes of invention and contrast. The Musica Nova players seemed to enjoy themselves and in this finale Raff employs the orchestra with full complement of brass. It was both a joy and relief that apprehensions aroused at the Saturday rehearsal were completely dispelled by the note perfect and rousing delivery of the brass fanfares which conclude the movement. Warren Cohen and the Musica Nova orchestra had done themselves proud and the audience rewarded them with bravos and a standing ovation of sincere enthusiasm. The only disappointment for this reviewer is that so few people were introduced to this masterpiece of Raff at its North American premiere, appropriately offered Zur Herbstzeit!
The much more extensive full review, which includes Dr Krueck's report on the performance of the Henselt Piano Concerto is available here.