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Raff concerts in Frankfurt

Concerts review - Frankfurt am Main

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Friday 22 June and Sunday 24 June 2012

The modern Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt is a far cry from the institution of which Raff was the founding director 135 years ago. Housed in an aggressively modern purpose-built building on the edge of the city centre, it boasts two excellent performance spaces, the large Clara Schumann Hall and the more intimate Englebert Humperdinck Hall. This weekend the Conservatory was marking Raff's 190th birthday last month and the weekend's 130th anniversary of his death with a series of three concerts celebrating his music, an entirely laudable endeavour.

The first concert, which was to be repeated the next day in the Rhineland city of Solingen, was given to a capacity audience in the Clara Schumann Hall and the all-Raff programme consisted of the Piano Concerto and the premiere concert performance (after only 132 years!) of the cantata Die Sterne, which first saw the light of day in a recent Sterling recording [review]. Before the music got underway the current director of the institution, Mario Liepe introduced Raff to the audience, speaking of his immense contribution to the Conservatory's enduring success, and gave a fulsome welcome to the several Raff luminaries in the audience.

With the exception of the conductor, Helmut Sohler, the orchestra and soloist in the Piano Concerto were students at the Conservatory, but from the orchestra's brief opening tutti it was clear that they were as adept as any professional orchestra and that no allowances needed to be made for their status. The same was true of the young soloist, South Korean piano student Ji-Ye Song, whose entry was as clear, crisp and confident as one could have hoped for. It was obvious from the start that she saw the work as a lyrical piece, tending to play down any hint of heroism in her part and leaving the drama mostly to the orchestra which, under Sohler's dynamic direction, rose to the challenge with solid brass sound and an impeccable string ensemble. Note perfect, Song's poetic interpretation was an interestingly untheatrical take on the first movement.

The second movement is usually the highlight of the work, its abundance of heartfelt melody and a skilfully written majestic climax making it the piece's memorable centre of gravity. Oddly, both orchestra and soloist seemed slightly less sure of their way in its first half, with a few instances of questionable intonation in the orchestra and sometimes a lack of accurate co-ordination between them and Song, whose playing continued its impeccable accuracy. The grand emotional outpouring at the movement's heart saw everything come together, however, and the movement was brought to a strong and confident end.

Relaxing into their task, Song and the ensemble were at their best in the Finale which under Sohler's energetic baton had plenty of vigour and momentum, the fast pace of which didn't seem to faze Song at all. Once again, her interpretation emphasised the lyricism of the piano writing but Sohler's control of tempi made for an exemplary contribution from his players, demonstrating what an exciting and rewarding listen Raff can be. The closing stretta saw everyone on top form and the enthusiastic applause was no more than Song, the orchestra and Raff merited.

As a well-deserved encore Song played Ohne Ruh', the eleventh of Raff's Frühlingsboten op.55 with all the delicacy and finesse which she had demonstrated in the Concerto.

Instead of an interval, the prominent Raff advocate Dr Benedikt Stegemann gave an entertaining talk [download in PDF format] outlining Raff's fascinating life and his contribution to Dr Hoch's Conservatory, bemoaning the fact that this great composer was still denied his proper place in the musical pantheon. He closed with the, maybe not too serious, suggestion that instead of naming its concert halls after two of its famous teachers, the Conservatory should name one of them "Joseph Joachim Raff Saal" after its founding director!

The premiere of Die Sterne saw a redistribution of desks in the orchestra, a different conductor in Olaf Katzer and the addition of the 70 strong combined choirs of the Conservatory and Frankfurt's Musterschule, singing not in blocks but as mixed voices. From the start it was clear that this performance would match and sometimes transcend that recorded in Sweden. Katzer's opening tempi combined vigour with a sort of rhapsodic fervour which the mellow warmth of the choir's precise and strong sound only emphasised, making the first movement an altogether excellent beginning. The short naive folksong-like second movement, clearly enjoyed by the choir, emphasised their precision and fine ensemble in well-pointed singing of finesse and humour. The orchestra has more to do in the slower Adagio which follows and this saw Katzer maintain a steady forward momentum whilst never moving so quickly as to threaten the phrasing of the gorgeous melodic lines. The choir provided a reliable well of sound against which Raff's felicitous orchestration was piquantly contrasted.

The gem of Die Sterne is the Largo fourth movement in which the most prominent part is played by a solo horn. The young Japanese soloist Shifu Kosaka made a wonderful job of this, despite his understandable nervousness. It was sensitively phrased with intelligent dynamics and led satisfyingly to the sumptuous barcarole-like choral section, again sung with clear enjoyment by the choir. The Finale was a tour de force for both orchestra and choir, especially once the fugal section began. Katzer steered his forces with real skill, combining them whilst maintaining the clarity of each part and leading to a strongly satisfying peroration. Raff couldn't have hoped for a more persuasively uplifting premiere of one of his loveliest works, given by the students of his own Konservatorium. The applause was long and loud, as was only right.

To mark the actual 130th anniversary of Raff's death two days later, the smaller Englebert Humperdinck Hall was the venue for a chamber concert featuring music by Raff and others associated with him or the Conservatory. The Hall, a fine chamber music venue, is dominated by an impressive organ and so it was a shame that Mario Liepe 's opening welcome to the substantial audience relayed the news that the organist Johannes von Erdmann was ill and so we wouldn't be hearing as planned Raff's Introduction & Fugue and a piece by Rheinberger. Again, most of the performers were students at the Conservatory, but the professor of piano, Stefana Chitta-Stegemann, was also to play a prominent part.

Pianist Christian Tutschek began the evening by giving us an unusually emphatic interpretation of the opening Allegro agitato of the Sonatille No.1 op.99, solidly delivered, which was followed by Laura Caterina Hampa (violin) and Paulina Levina (piano) playing the Two Romances op.22 of Clara Schumann, the most prominent member of Raff's teaching staff. Hampa's yearning tone in the first Andante molto was underpinned by Levina's always reliable support but the pair really came into their own in the playfully attractive Allegretto which followed. Professor Chitta-Stegemann then gave a deeply felt and forceful performance of Liszt's Petrach Sonnet no.104 Pace non Trovo, which was followed by the centrepiece of the evening, her interpretation of Raff's magnificent Fantasy-Sonata. This was another powerful and passionate performance with a strong emphasis on the piece's dark drama, arguably at the expense of its lyricism. Stegemann clearly favoured the "fantasy" side of its dual nature over the formal "sonata" element, especially so in the turbulent outer sections which were lent a distinctly Lisztian fervour. The central section perhaps lacked some of the warmth and lightness which makes it such an effective foil for the music which surrounds it. That said, Chitta-Stegemann's commanding interpretation was very well received by the audience, to most of whom the music will have been entirely unfamiliar.

The second half began with Harumi Yoshihama's straightforward, confident performances of two pieces from Raff's Suite de Morceaux pour petites mains op.75: the flowing, playful Manon No.6 and the skittering horse ride of No.8 Tour à cheval.  The pianist Adele Franceska Lenz and flautist Julian Sauer then provided what was, for me at least, the unexpected highlight of the evening: a beautifully integrated and intelligently paced account of Hindemith's perky Flute Sonata, which was followed by a welcome unprogrammed "extra" in the shape of the very attractive third movement of Reinecke's Undine op.167 for the two instruments. Lenz herself followed this with a very satisfying performance of Liszt's Tarantella aus Venezia e Napoli which combined lyricism and whirlwind pianism calculated to show off her technique, whilst never being less than wholly musical. A name to watch. Finally Professor Chitta-Stegemann was joined by her Romanian colleague Ioana Meier-Ostafi in a brisk rendition of an arrangement of Raff's evergreen Cavatina op.75 no.3 which was clearly very much to the audience's taste.

After the concert, Herr Direktor Liepe mentioned in conversation that the second orchestral and choral concert in Solingen had been even more musically successful than that in Frankfurt. Many in the audience had asked him why they had never heard of Raff and had wanted to hear more of his music. I confirmed that this had been a common reaction at any concert featuring Raff's music at which I've been present. Events such as this festival weekend, exposing not only fresh audiences but also a whole generation of students at a prestigious conservatory to Raff's music, will help enormously in restoring his reputation.

Mark Thomas

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