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Concert review - Lachen

Lachen, Switzerland: Saturday 30 January 2010

I have always found Raff's Symphony No.11 Der Winter a problematic piece. I first got to know it through Urs Schneider's lacklustre recording for Marco Polo; it seemed to be a very poor relation of the other three works in the master's Seasons cycle. Of course, the fact that it was actually the first of them to have been written but was withheld from performance and publication by its creator, only appearing posthumously, seemed to confirm that even he had a low opinion of it. Even ignoring its history, the "wintry" effects seemed merely pasted on, not integral to the musical argument; the first three movements shared a moderate pace which didn't offer enough contrast; there was a lack of excitement about the piece generally and its finale seemed to be a prime example of a Raff generic "celebration" last movement, with plenty of bustle but not much lasting interest.

Then came an epiphany of sorts. Firstly, Avrohom Leichtling published his penetrating analysis of the work, arguing that it represented such an revolutionary advance in Raff's symphonic style over its predecessors that he probably withheld it so that he could write the next three symphonies as a sort of gradual "catch up" before he could publish the work. Almost simultaneously came Hans Stadlmair's very persuasive recording of the piece (Tudor 7120 - review) which revealed that the work had much more of interest than I had heard before and showed it to be potentially a worthy end to the Seasons cycle. Nonetheless, it still seemed to be a fragile creature, not as robust as its companions and with more than its fair share of interpretive pitfalls.

Having never heard it live, though, the opportunity to attend a concert performance in Raff's birthplace of Lachen, Switzerland, was far too tempting a prospect to pass up. The venue was the little town's grand church, its twin dome-topped towers dominating the lakefront, a few steps away from the site of Raff's birthplace. The church was gratifyingly well-filled in view of the appropriately snowy weather sweeping in across the lake as Paul Emmenegger, on behalf of the Swiss Joachim Raff Society, stood up to welcome the audience, thank the sponsors and introduce the 50-strong Sinfonieorchester Ausserschwyz and their founding conductor Urs Bamert. The orchestra is a mixture of youth and experience, amateur and professional, and seem to have established a high reputation in the Schwyz canton.

Raff's symphony was first in the programme and it got off to a rather hesitant start, with some intonation problems in the first violins, soon overcome. The first movement, Die erste Schnee (the first snow), began slowly, making what could have been a poetic picture of faint snow flurries rather pedestrian. As the orchestra warmed to their task, Bamert picked up the pace and the woodwind came into their own, nicely colouring Raff's spare textures and reminding us of the snow which awaited us outside. More dynamic contrast would have brought much more life to the music, as would more momentum, that characteristic hallmark of Raff's opening movements. As it was, this movement, with its moderato mezzo forte delivery, somehow failed to deliver the thrill and drama which it could have done, despite Bamert's obviously enthusiastic direction and his players undoubted skill and enjoyment.

The untitled second movement was taken at a rather less sprightly pace than one might have expected but, once again, the woodwind were to be applauded for coping really well with some tricky writing. Bamert kept things light and this helped counteract the church's tendency to obscure the more delicate textures. Although the movement has a surface geniality to it, there is an underlying brittleness which was brought out by the tellingly sudden reminders of Winter's icy winds in Bamert's intelligent interpretation.

The third movement, Am Kamin, would have struck a chord with its audience. A Kamin is one of those vast, tiled stoves found in traditional Swiss and German homes, so here Raff paints a picture of cozy gemütlich domesticity. He sounded at his most Tchaikovskian as the bassoon and then horn led us into a piece which flowed satisfyingly, its melodic climaxes nicely judged. It was taken at a moderate pace, as is entirely right with Raff "slow" movements, but the lack of differentiation between the tempi of the first three movements had become quite telling by this stage and this, coupled with the church's resonant acoustic which obscured both orchestral details and dynamic variations, detracted from the impact of this well played and sympathetically conducted movement.

Perhaps because the orchestra was now thoroughly warmed up, the Carnival finale, surely the Symphony's weakest movement, made the most impact. Here, Bamert chose to let rip and the tempi were remorselessly fast. Although nothing can fully disguise the lack of real melodic interest in Raff's medley of joyful dances, Bamert's artful direction made sure that that there was plenty of rhythmic appeal to sustain the piece through to its end. The players merited all the generous applause they got for delivering such an effective close to the work. Overall, depite my criticisms, both Bamert and his orchestra deserve praise for making such a good account of one of Raff's more problematic scores. That it failed to totally convince is, if I'm honest, as much down to Raff and the church's booming acoustic as it is to Bamert erring on the side of safety in his interpretation of the first three movements.

After an appropriately brief interval on this cold evening, the second half was take up with a fine performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations which had all the dynamic contrast, tempi variation and sheer vigour which one could have wished for. It was an interpretation of which orchestra and conductor should be proud. I tramped back out onto Lachen's snowy streets, reflecting on the unfortunate juxtaposition of one of Elgar's most vibrant, effective and crowd pleasing works against one by Raff which, even its admirers would surely admit, needs a lot of nurturing to give of its best.

Mark Thomas

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