Bad Urach, Germany: Saturday 28 September 2002
The theme of this year's Herbstliche Musiktage festival, held in the rolling foothills of Württemberg's Swabian Jura, was "Music from Switzerland" and, with his strong Swiss connections, it featured Raff's music prominently. The introductory concert, held in the impressive concert hall of Bad Urach's half timbered and be-turreted Residenzschloss, began with the first of the two piano pieces from Raff's penultimate opus - "From the Swabian Jura" op.215. The peaceful Etude "Olga's repose at the waterfall of Urach" was played by Aya Ashihara and made a very appropriate prelude to a varied evening featuring piano works and songs by the likes of Schoeck, Fröhlich and Honneger.
Bad Urach, Germany: Monday 30 September 2002
The first purely orchestral concert of the series needed the larger venue of the small Swabian spa's Festhalle, which accommodated the sizeable audience gathered to hear a mixture of the familiar and the novel. Crossing the boundary between the two was the first performance ever of Raff's 1850 orchestration of Liszt's first thoughts for his subsequently well-known symphonic poem "Prometheus". Newly available in a definitive edition prepared from Raff's autograph by Edition Nordstern's Volker Tosta, this was a perplexing, but not unattractive beast. Perplexing because its own mix of the familiar and the novel made it a rather disorientating listen. Whilst the thematic material was certainly familiar, there where significant structural differences from the final version, particularly in the central slower section.
Raff's contribution was to shroud Liszt's work in orchestral colour and here, unsurprisingly, the differences were great. Perhaps the big surprise is that Raff's orchestration is rounder and more sonorous than Liszt's - there are more wind parts for instance. In this, his first extant orchestral score, Raff at 28 demonstrates that he has much of his mature mastery of colour and detail - the woodwind writing is already unmistakably his. There is almost a Wagnerian tinge to the sound world here, missing from later Raff. Overall then a fascinating exercise which one hopes will gain repeated hearings.
The work opened the concert and the Württemberg Philharmonic, playing here under Roberto Paternostro's baton, gave the impression that they used it as a warm up. Though by no means a bad performance, it suffered from its fair share of fluffed and hesitant entries and passages of uncertain ensemble. Paternostro's tempi were on the slow side compared with the usual for the final version of Prometheus, but didn't seem out of place in this more episodic and less terse original.
"Prometheus" was followed by a stunningly dramatic and insightful performance by baritone Dietrich Henschel of Frank Martin's orchestral setting of Six Monologues from "Everyman" by Richard Strauss' librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
In jaw dropping contrast, German "wunderkind" pianist Florian Uhlig then played the Liszt Piano Concerto No.1 as if his very life depended on it. His histrionic but bravura playing rightly delighted the audience and proved that even the old charlatan's most disneyesque piece is still effective if it's treated to a performance to match its unsubtle gestures. What a shame that the original plan for Uhlig to play Raff's Suite for Piano & Orchestra op.200 didn't materialise.
After the interval, the Württemberger's played Brahms' Symphony No.2 in a robust no-nonsense reading from Paternostro which, despite its general lightness of touch, seemed to miss much of the poetry in the score.