Karlstad, Sweden: Thursday 2 April 2009
Performances of Raff’s orchestral music have increased in recent years but they are still few and far between. Prior to this concert I had heard only four of the eleven symphonies in concert and they were mixed experiences, ranging from an impressively persuasive Second Symphony in Bamberg to a dire performance of the Fourth in Antwerp. Nonetheless, the prospect of hearing for the first time one of his symphonic masterpieces, the Symphony No.3 Im Walde, was inevitably an alluring one.
The town of Karlstad, capital of west Sweden’s region of Värmland, is an attractive and lively place, even in the very chilly early Spring. It has a thriving opera company, the orchestra of which also gives a well supported series of orchestral concerts. The theme of the current series was the area’s abundant woodlands and so, according to conductor Henrik Schaefer to whom I chatted at the rehearsal, the choice of Raff’s symphonic celebration of the forest was a natural one for him. Schaefer, formerly Claudio Abbado’s assistant at the Berlin Philharmonic, has known and studied Im Walde for years and his enthusiasm for the score was clear. My initial concerns at the beginning of the rehearsal that the Värmlandoperans Sinfonietta, numbering only 40 or so players, would prove to be far too under-powered for such a high-romantic programme were quickly dispelled by their disciplined and skilled ensemble, which showed them capable of punching well above their weight.
The programme of Brahms, Dvorák and Raff attracted a near capacity audience to the comfortable and modern 730-seater concert venue, which doubles as the hall of a suburban high school. Some conductors, taking Brahms’ title in deadly earnest, can make his Tragic Overture a relentlessly depressing experience. Here Schaefer, an imposing figure with real podium presence, got it off to a vigourous and lively start, giving it an almost operatic feel which was maintained throughout the piece. The small scale of the orchestra (only six first violins for example) sometimes showed up the inadequacies not so much of the ensemble as of Brahms’ orchestration, which at times lacked the depth and multi-layered textures characterised by both the Dvorák and Raff works which followed. Overall, though, a satisfyingly sonorous sound was achieved, aided by the hall's surprisingly good acoustics. Schaefer’s orchestra were fully up to the considerable demands of his polished and driven interpretation.
Returning to the podium, Schaefer towered over the diminutive figure of 21 year old British wunderkind violinist Chloë Hanslip, the soloist in Dvorák’s Violin Concerto. This is a work which has always somehow disappointed, the promise of the fine opening movement dissipated by a disconcertingly unmemorable slow movement and a lightweight finale. Here, after the confident opening tutti, Hanslip commanded from the first, her dramatic opening statement a model of powerful projection. There unfolded a movement of satisfyingly lyrical drama, Schaefer’s precise and supportive accompaniment underlining Hanslip’s authoritative and big-bodied solo line. Her poised and poetic interpretation of the central Adagio demonstrated a maturity belied by her years, and was aided by a careful control of dynamics, shaping the movement into a hymn of tenderness and regret which elevated it into a piece which for once seemed to match the quality of its predecessor. The serious mood was dispelled by the catchy start to the Allegro giocoso finale, which then bounced along happily enough. Schaefer’s attention to detail was especially welcome in his sharply defined phrasing, but neither this nor playing of virtuosic élan from Hanslip could disguise the comparative thinness of Dvorák’s material after two such satisfying preceding movements. Overall, though, it was a tremendous performance from soloist, conductor and players alike. The standing ovation which she received was richly deserved and prompted an encore: John Corigliano’s Caprice was an utterly stunning display of the pyrotechnic virtuosity at Hanslip’s command.
On two previous occasions at performances of Raff symphonies I have attended, lily-livered concert organizers have programmed his symphony before the interval, presumably to guard against losing their audience for the second half. The Karlstad authorities were made of more confident stuff, bolstered no doubt by the enthusiasm shown for Im Walde by the conductor and, as evidenced at the rehearsal, his players. Their confidence was repaid: as far as I could see, every seat remained occupied for this novelty.
From the very beginning of the opening movement, portraying the forest in daytime, Schaefer demonstrated that he had Raff’s measure. The tempi were lively without being rushed, the dynamics were varied and the long phrases intelligently shaped. As the movement gathered pace and built up to the first sustained climax there was plenty of excitement too and this carried on as the piece progressed, tension ratcheting up all the while. The orchestra played for all they were worth, the strings in particular overcoming their restricted numbers by producing a convincingly big sound, whilst the brass resisted the temptation to drown everyone else out until Raff and Schaefer demanded it. Raff’s mastery of the orchestra was amply demonstrated; here there was no thinness of sonority, no awkwardnesses; everything sounded and the overall effect was impressive for such a modest group. The long movement didn’t outstay its welcome. It was a glowing performance which promised so much for the remainder of the work.
The two middle movements are on a much more modest scale, the first depicting twilight and the second a dance by forest nymphs. The hushed opening to the slow movement was a moment to treasure with the sole clarinet weaving its glorious melody over murmuring strings. At the rehearsal Schaefer had told his players to “be brave here: it’s what separates a great orchestra from a good one”. They paid heed and the result was a moment of magic worth the price of admission alone. The clarinettist Jonas Wiklund deserves praise for his long solos throughout the piece. The whole movement was suffused with a gently flowing tenderness which floated away on solos from the first violin and first cello, leaving the rapt audience to exhale slowly.
The scherzo was taken at a cracking pace, the woodwinds and first violins bearing the brunt of Raff’s fiendishly demanding writing and the strings in particular betrayed not a moment of insecurity. The movement was dashed off with breathless élan by the Sinfonietta, marred only very slightly by Schaefer’s failure to slow up just a little bit more for the reprise of the previous movement’s material, which brings this little gem to its close. This restatement from the strings, played in counterpoint against the still chattering woodwind, binds the two movements together and could have been even more special if the audience had been given time to recognise it. This is especially important as Raff uses the same device at the very end of the finale.
The finale is perhaps the most difficult movement to bring off as it is much the most episodic. It is largely given over to a depiction of a frenetic ghoulish night time hunt but also has more relaxed episodes and ends with the sunrise. Beginning slowly, Schaefer’s tempo was as spot on as the rest of his interpretation, allowing him plenty of room to speed up when the hunt proper begins. For once, the relatively few strings seemed exposed here but as soon as the hunt, taken at a very fast tempo, arrived all was well. The debt owed by Tchaikovsky to Raff, which the Russian often acknowledged, was obvious throughout this movement but never more so as Raff depicts the horses’ furious pace with skirling winds and frantic string figurations. Schaefer’s players gave it their all and the excitement was palpable. All the more telling, then, that the pace was slackened so substantially for the passage which Schaefer said he clearly identified as dance music. On first hearing at the rehearsal I wasn’t at all convinced by this slowing of the pace, so different was it from all the recordings which I have heard, but, as Raff repeats the juxtaposition towards the end of the movement, by the fourth hearing it seemed an entirely appropriate way of momentarily relieving the tension built up by the pounding hooves. The long and rather mysterious central section can seem aimless, but it was taken at quite a sprightly pace and so the anticipation of the hunt’s return was heightened rather than squandered.
The return was quite electrifying and Schaefer kept piling on the pressure as the movement ran its course. It’s hard to imagine how the closing pages, with their recall of the very opening of the Symphony in a glorious depiction of daybreak and the blazing return of the sun, could have been handled more persuasively, such was the skill of Schaefer’s interpretation and, to be fair, the quality of the playing. I can honestly say that I have been to few Raff performances over the years which have equalled the thrill of this one and it was certainly the most exciting and fulfilling orchestral Raff performance I have ever witnessed. Anybody coming unawares on this concert would immediately understand how this symphony was able to retain its place for thirty years as one of the most popular in the orchestral repertoire.Raff has a powerful champion in Henrik Schaefer. On this evidence I wouldn't need much persuading to travel to his other orchestra in Hiroshima, Japan, were they to present his interpretation of Raff’s other great popular symphony: Lenore. We can only wait and hope.