Of Raff's nine works for soloist and orchestra, only the Suite for Piano & Orchestra still awaits its commercial recording debut. That's a situation which would have seemed absurdly optimistic only a few years ago.
Piano and orchestra
There are four available recordings of Raff's Piano Concerto. Two are from Michael Ponti, that tireless champion of the by ways of romantic piano concerti. The first dates from the early 70s and is typical of Vox LP recordings of the time - thin sound, second rate orchestral support and frenetic, virtuoso high jinks from Ponti - high on excitement but low on subtlety. He is paired with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra under Richard Kapp and the Vox CD transfer is available on two different releases (Vox CDX 5067 and CDX 5097) coupled with other concertos in the Ponti series. His second recording is from 20 years later and is on the Dante label (PSG 9655 - review). The performance is just as virtuosic and has more subtlety, but the distant recording of the Vogtland Theatre Philharmonic Orchestra makes this seem more like a Piano Sonata! The coupling is the Moszkowski concerto.
The two remaining performances are more evenly matched. On Tudor (Tudor 7035 coupled with Ode au Printemps and 785 coupled with the Symphony No.9), Peter Aronsky gives a pleasant, poetic and well paced performance aided by the Basle Radio Symphony Orchestra under Matthias Bamert. The orchestra is just about up to the demands made on it by Raff, but there is something humdrum about the whole experience - Ponti's excitement is missed. Luckily a thoroughly recommendable alternative remains. The Swiss Claves label (Claves 50-8806) also couples the Concerto with "Ode to Spring" and adds Busoni's early Konzertstück for good measure. Jean-François Antonioli delivers a finely judged interpretation with plenty of light and shade, bravado and pathos. Lawrence Foster and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra provide impeccable support and it all makes for a satisfying listen.
Unfortunately, Frank Cooper's persuasive account with the Nürnberg Symphony Orchestra under Zolst Deàky which was available on a Genesis LP from 1972 has yet to be transferred to CD.
The glorious Suite for Piano & Orchestra is only available in one recording, so it's lucky that the performance from Sterling (CDS-1085 - review) is such a winner. It's difficult to imagine an interpretation which could combine poetry and virtuosity to more telling effect. Tra Nguyen plays her heart out and is more than ably supported by the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera under Roland Kluttig's baton. The Suite is coupled with five otherwise unavailable overtures and preludes in equally winning performances. A must buy.
The early concert piece Ode au Printemps is a winning work. The three performances available are again from Ponti (Vox CDX 5098), Aronsky (Tudor 7035 coupled with the Piano Concerto or 784 coupled with the Symphony No.8) and Antonioli (Claves 50-8806) and the last two are coupled with the Piano Concerto. Ponti's coupling is with other romantic concertos. Each offering shares the characteristics of the matching Concerto recording and so, again, the clear recommendation is for Antonioli.
Violin and orchestra
With Thomas Ringborg's recent offering from Sterling (CDS 1075 - review), all Raff's works for violin and orchestra have been recorded. Ringborg delivers stupendous interpretations of the newly-rediscovered heroically lyrical Violin Concerto No.1, coupled with the much earlier faerie Konzertstück La fée d'amour and the fiery five movement baroque-inspired Suite for solo violin and orchestra. The strongly contrasting characters of these three important works are effortlessly highlighted by Ringborg in playing which is as sensitive as it is virtuosic. The Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera under their conductor Andrea Quinn provide powerful support. Everything about this recording merits superlatives and it is an essential purchase for any Raff enthusiast.
A second CD, this time from Tudor (7086 - review), rounds out the repertoire with a fine performance of the Violin Concerto No.2 from Michaela Paetsch-Neftel accompanied impeccably by Raff stalwart Hans Stadlmair conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. This is another superb recording of an important and lovable work. The disk also features three arrangements. Raff's own re-scoring for violin and orchestra of his Ungrischer and Edmund Singer's arrangement of the famous Cavatine are both excellently played and recorded. For a few years, the only recording available of the Violin Concerto No.1 was the fourth piece on this CD: the arrangement of the work made by its dedicatee the virtuoso August Wilhelmj. Although it receives as committed a performance as the other works here, it now only has curiosity value having been completely superceded by Ringborg's account of Raff's original on Sterling.
Another unreserved recommendation for Daniel Müller-Schott's account of the two Cello Concertos, also on the Tudor label (Tudor 7121 - review). Accompanied by Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Schott turns in wonderfully persuasive performances of these two fine works. His intelligent readings are full of poetry and virtuosity and more splendid readings can hardly be imagined. The coupling is a pair of works for Cello and Piano which receive equally dellightful readings from Müller-Schott and his pianist Robert Kulek.
The beautiful Cello Concerto No.1 has also been recorded by Thomas Blees, who is almost the cello equivalent of Ponti in the romantic revival stakes. He gives a rather tepid, if admittedly solid, interpretation of it the on RBM's hard to find CD (CD 465 108 - review). The amateur status of Norbert Kirchmann and his Tübingen Physicians Orchestra is hardly apparent, although the tempi are uniformly on the slow side. The major coupling of Reinecke's Cello Concerto is somehow much more successful and the other Raff work - his orchestration of the Bach Chaconne - is totally eclipsed by the recent Chandos recording.
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