Luckily for Raff enthusiasts, the recorded repertoire of Raff's chamber music is growing quickly and many of the performances available are first rate.
See the CD discography for full listings of all the recordings mentioned here. Recommended recordings are marked in the discography.
The delicious String Octet is offered on two CDs - but one is much to be preferred over the other. London's Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Chandos CHAN 8790) gives a suitably lively and cheerful performance of this sunny work and the coupling of Mendelssohn's String Octet underlines the provenance of Raff's piece. Whilst the Kammermusiker Zürich (Jecklin 547) have an attractively unusual coupling in the first of Spohr's Double Quartets, neither their performance nor Jecklin's sound stands comparison. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is the clear recommendation here.
Sextet and Piano Quintets
Ensemble Villa Musica deliver a fizzing performance of the delightful String Sextet on German label MDG's first Raff CD (MDG 304 1181- review). They judge the, generally fast, tempi to perfection and this witty work is in safe and persuasive hands. All the more reason to be disappointed by their pedestrian and unimaginative reading of the equally attractive Piano Quintet. The dreary tempi and inability to convey any enthusiasm for the work make this dispiriting listening. Only recommended for the Sextet. Luckily there's a marvellous alternative for the Piano Quintet in Il Trittico's glorious account (Divox CDX-20506 - review). Both artistically and tecnically this is a well nigh perfect recording and cannot be recommended highly enough, particularly as the disc also includes the only available recording of the Fantasie for Piano Quintet. This is a very winning work which gets another superb performance from Il Trittico. The disc should be at the top the shopping list of anyone who doens't already own it.
The two Piano Quartets are highly rewarding works but only one recording is available; once again it comes from Il Trittico (with David Greenlees, viola) and is on the Swiss Divox label (CDX-20905 - review). Luckily, these are simply stunning performances which satisfy both musically and sonically in every respect. The First Piano Quartet fizzes along its generally lighthearted course in an exhilarating manner, whilst its much more introverted and troubled companion, with its roller-coaster ride of emotions, gets an appropriately multi-hued interpretation. The artistry and sheer dexterity displayed is jaw-dropping. Enthusiastically recommended.
Of the eight extant string quartets, four have now been recorded by the Quartetto di Milano for the Swiss Tudor label and two by the Mannheim Quartet for cpo.
The Milanese have the field to themselves in the String Quartets No.1 (Tudor 7079 - review) and No.2 (Tudor 7116 - review). Both are fine performances by players who seem to have the music in their souls. The fiery First Quartet gets a full blooded reading and Tudor's recording ambience suits the music perfectly, making this disc a "must buy" - especially as the coupling is an equally impressive rendition of the Seventh Quartet. The Second Quartet is treated to a sensitive and romantic reading which catches the transient moods of this elusive work very well. It also can be recommended without reservation.
Unfortunately its coupling of the String Quartet No.6 is less successful. It is a technically polished, but soulless affair lacking any real emotional depth. The disk can therefore be recommended only for the Second Quartet. Luckily the piece fares much better in the Mannheim Quartet's CD for cpo (777 003 - review). It's generally a softer, warmer experience, although they bring a powerfully despairing note to the Arie slow movement. The work's homage to Baroque models is clear, but not overpowering in this fine reading. The coupling is the programmatic Seventh Quartet, which is also available from Tudor, coupled with the Quartet No.1. After a gap of ten years, the Mannheimers continue their survey of the String Quartets with powerful, persuasive and unreservedly recommendable performances of the String Quartets Nos.3, 4 and 8 (cpo 777 004 - review). These are warm, convincing interpretations of these winning works, which are also the only recordings available of them. The fourth quartet in their double CD set is No.2 and their performance is very much on a par with Quartetto di Milano's. On the whole this is an equally valid interpretation, but their slightly more languid approach to an already rhapsodic work may not be to all tastes, particularly in the slow movement. On its own merits, however, it is recommendable, especially for some fine playing from the Mannheim Quartet.
There's not much to choose between them; both are attractive and sympathetic performances of this six movement work which go a long way towards explaining the piece's fame in Raff's lifetime. Neither will disappoint and can be recommended without any qualms. A third competing recording is a historic one, featuring Alfredo Campoli playing only the Quartet's "Mill" movement. It's only of interest to devotees of "historic" recordings (Pearl PASTCD9744).
The four piano trios are amongst Raff's most delicious works. There is a clear but rather less emphatic recommendation for this core repertoire. The two 2001 issues from CPO contain the complete Piano Trios in wonderful performances played by the Trio Opus 8. cpo 999 616 (review) pairs the high romantic Piano Trio No.1 with the more elusive No.4. The ebullient trios No.2 and No.3 share the second well filled CD (cpo 999 800 -review). All four lovely works receive passionate, sensitive and intelligent interpretations in a modern acoustic and are both essential purchases.
Il Trittico have also recorded all four trios on a budget two disk set for Arte Nova (74321888332 -review) and at the price they are good value for anyone unfamiliar with this repertoire. Good though they are, there can sometimes be a blandness about the performances, however, which leaves the cpo offerings as the recommended recording for each of the four trios, despite their higher price.
Trio Nota Bene's performance of the Piano Trio No.1 (Claves 50-2912 -review) unfortunately just can't compete with either of these. It has a driven, unfeeling quality which debars it from recommendation.
Violin Sonatas and other music for Violin and Piano
German label cpo have embarked on a promised five-volume series covering all the music for violin and piano. Their Swiss competitors Tudor have produced two CDs on which are grouped just the five Violin Sonatas, complemented by a third disk with the Six Morceaux and the Sonatilles. Luckily for Raff enthusiasts, all six CDs available so far from these two series can be heartily recommended, despite their rather different take on Raff's music.
The cpo set brings us assured and satisfying performances from Ingolf Turban and Jascha Nemtsov.
The first CD (CPO 999 767 - review) features the Violin Sonata No.1, the Two Fantasies op.58, the Duo op.59 and the second of the three Duos op.63 on motifs from Wagner's operas (Tannhäuser in this case). The Violin Sonata No.2, Six Morceaux and the Lohengrin Duo from the op.59 set comprise the second CD (CPO 999 768 - review). They have equally recommendable competition for the Lohengrin piece from Sohn and Loeb on a Naxos compilation DC (Naxos 8.570202 - review). The third volume in the cpo series is equally recommendable. Its centrepiece is the delightful Violin Sonata No.3, which is coupled with the lyrical Aus der Schweitz, the Flying Dutchman Duo from op.59 and four of the ten Sonatilles op.99 (CPO 999 769 - review). The fourth CD (cpo 777 006 - review) couples the remaining two sonatas in vibrant, energetic performances which are thoroughly recommendable. For the five Sonatilles on offer, though, the Tudor set is probably a better bet. Overall, though, these CDs are worthy additions to the list of recommended recordings.
For the Violin Sonatas, Tudor pair Ariadne Daskalakis and Roglit Ishay in readings of equal technical merit which tend to take a broader and warmer view of the music. The first CD of their pair couples the Violin Sonatas Nos.1, 3 and 4 (Tudor 7122 - review). In contrast is the second CD in the set (Tudor 7129 - review) which pairs the Second and Fifth Sonatas. Here Daskalakis and Ishay take a more urgent and nervy view of the Second Sonata whilst to the Fifth they bring passion and angst to the two opening movements before relaxing in the final pair. All five works receive fine, idiomatic performances from this impressively intelligent duo.
The third Tudor disk (Tudor 7109 - review) is a delightful coupling of the Six Morceaux and the beautiful ten Sonatilles op.99. The slow movements of the Morceaux are taken at a languid pace by Michaela Paetsch Neftel and Eric Le Van and this contrasts well with the fireworks of the three fast pieces. The contrast is as effective in the gorgeous Sonatilles, too.
Both series can be highly recommended. As a general rule, the cpo pair's readings are edgy, dramatic and driven, emphasising the intensity of Raff's creative impulse. The Tudor artists tend to adopt a softer, warmer but very romantic approach which is just as appropriate. Raff enthusiasts would want both sets.
The Cavatine from the Six Morceaux for violin and piano op.85 above all others kept Raff's name before the musical public for most of the 20th. century. There are 12 different recordings available, in addition to the complete sets of the Six Morceaux offered by cpo and Tudor (see above). Of those featuring the original two instruments for which it was written, the four historic recordings offer variable sound quality which in no case is up to modern standards. Of the more modern performances, three are recommendable. Kowalski and Lutz (Guild GMCD 7125) offer a fine example of the traditional view of this piece - it is technically perfect and has just enough restrained sentimentality. The rest of the CD features other romantic miniatures played with equal sensitivity. Paetsch Neftel and Le Van in their complete set of the Morceaux give the work a very expansive treatment, ringing every last drop of emotion from its closing pages (Tudor 7109). Turban and Nemtsov (CPO 999 768) present a bolder, more ardent reading which sweeps away a century of sweetness in a most refreshing way.
The Cavatine has a history of arrangement and is available on CD in arrangements for violin and orchestra, piano quintet, piano trio, piano and organ and piano solo, none arranged by Raff himself.
Of the two orchestral versions, that by Michaela Paetsch Neftel accompanied by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Tudor 7086) is by far the better. Neftel's playing lacks some warmth but is otherwise fine and the coupling of Raff's two Violin Concertos is irresistible. Neftel's ASV competition (ASV DCA 1000) played by Nishino accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra is as uninspired as the rest of the CD, although perhaps not as dire as the Lenore Symphony on the same disc. This recording is, however, the only way of hearing three other pieces from op.85 in orchestral guise. Only recommendable for the incurable Raff enthusiast.
One other movement from a chamber work is available uniquely on this CD, but only in Raff's own free standing arrangement of it for violin and orchestra. The "Ungrischer" was originally the fifth movement of the nine movement "Volker" op.203 also for violin and piano.
The largest of Raff's chamber works is the Sinfonietta for 10 wind instruments, available in a recording by soloists of the Basle Radio Symphony Orchestra on Tudor 787. Although the coupling of the Symphony No.11 has a rather pedestrian interpretation, the Sinfonietta itself fares rather better and gets a lively and attractive performance. The CD is worth buying for this work at least.
Works for Cello & Piano
Raff wrote only four works for the cello and all are avalable on a thoroughly recommendable recording from Toccata Classics (Toccata TOCC0341 - review). Joseph Mendoes and Tae Yeon Lim prove a highly sympathetic partnership and their technical and interpretive skills allow them to present the Cello Sonata, Duo Op.59, Two Fantasies Op.86 and Two Romances Op.182 in the most favourable light. On a Tudor CD featuring the two Cello Concertos (Tudor 7121 - review), Daniel Müller-Schott and Robert Kulek also play two of them. Begenung (Encounter) op.86 no.1, and the Duo op.59 are beautifully played in sensitive and intelligent readings. Warmly recommended.
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