It comes as something of a surprise to realise that Raff's entire purely orchestral oeuvre is now available on CD.
Suites, opera overtures, Abends-Rhapsodie & J.S.
Tudor's bargain boxed set (Tudor 1600 - review) is a fairly safe bet for the budget-conscious. It not only contains the four orchestral suites, the Concert Overture, the overtures to the operas Dame Kobold, Die Parole and Benedetto Marcello, the Abends-Rhapssodie and Raff's arrangement of JC Bach's Chaconne but also all eleven symphonies in performances from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Hans Stadlmair. See below for comments on how each work's performance compares with those on offer from rival labels, but in general it is fair to say that Stadlmair's interpretations, if sometimes not the top choice, are never bad, and the bargain price of this set make it an irresistible choice for anyone wanting to acquire these pieces in one fell swoop.
The Italian Suite for Orchestra is a delightfully sunny work and there is a clear preference here for the stunning new recording from Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on Tudor (7088 - review). The warmth and joi de vivre of both performance and recording are in marked contrast with the rather stodgy interpretation of Edlinger and the Czechoslovak State Philharmonic Orchestra from Marco Polo (8.223194). Edlinger does have the advantage, though, of the neat coupling of the "From Thuringia" Suite which has a very similar style of performance. Stadlmair's coupling is a cracking Symphony No.3 [review].
"From Thüringia" Suite
Once again, Stadlmair's version (Tudor 7102 - review) is much to be preferred over the older Marco Polo performance from Edlinger and the Czechoslovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (8.223194). Although this Suite is somehow a rather stodgier work than the other "travelogue" Suites, Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony introduce transparency and a lightness of touch which lift it. Edlinger delivers a straightforward interpretation which doesn't have the same verve. The Tudor coupling is a magnificent performance of the Symphony No.2, whilst Marco Polo have the Italian Suite.
Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott Overture
This grand heroic piece is also available from Marco Polo (8.223455) - coupled with the Symphony No.5 as part of the Schneider cycle with the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra. The competition is again Tudor (786) in a 1979 recording of the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra under Pinchas Steinberg - the coupling is the Symphony No.10. There is little to choose between the two versions - both failing to bring out the full excitement of Raff's conception, but each reliable enough despite some scrappy playing. The Marco Polo sound is better but overall it would be unfair to favour one over the other - the coupling might be decisive.
Four Shakespeare Preludes
All four Preludes are available on competing CDs: coupled with a magnificent account of the Symphony No.2 by Neeme Järvi and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Chandos CHSA 5117 - review), and from Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, coupled with the Elegie and Festival Overture (Tudor 7128 - review). Järvi can be recoomended without reservation. These are exciting, musically cogent and superbly articulated accounts, which show these fascinating works off to best effect. Stadlmair conducts Der Sturm (The Tempest) , Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet and Othello with variable success. Neither Der Sturm nor Othello get very compelling performances. The magnificent Macbeth gets an adequate (but no more) performance from Stadlmair, which is recommendable over Urs Schneider's for Marco Polo (8.223630) only because Stadlmair's orchestra is so evidently superior to Schneider's Slovak ensemble.The problematic Romeo & Juliet does get a cogent, recommendable rendition from Stadlmair, whose brisk approach really favours the piece. Francesco d'Avalos' account of it on ASV (DCA 793) is rather slower, but it does benefit from being coupled with a fine performance of the lovely "Evening Rhapsody" and an acceptable Symphony No.3. The Philharmonia play excellently, highlighting the details in Raff's score to a much greater extent than do Schneider's usual Kosiçe orchestra on the rival Marco Polo offering (8.223630). This, though, is one of the better discs in the Schneider cycle offering as it does a pretty good run through of the magnificent Shakespearean companion piece "Macbeth" and an adequate performance of the Symphony No.2. The combination is at present a strong and attractive one.
The Tudor disk does, however, have the benefit of offering unique performances of the Elegie and the Festival Overture (see below).
Neeme Järvi's new Chandos CD Nicholas Carthy's Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana give a deftly sparkling performance of the "Dame Kobold" Overture on Dynamic (CDS 283 - review) which is greatly to be preferred to Schneider's middling effort as part of his symphony cycle on Marco Polo (8.223638). It is matched by a new recording from Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on the Tudor label (7113 - review). The Bavarians take an even more frenetic view of the work, without ever losing sight of the musical essentials.
Bach's Chaconne (Violin Partita No.2)
Raff's magnificent orchestration is superbly played by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on Chandos' CD [review] of romantic transcriptions of Bach's music (CHAN 9835). Highly recommended. For the alternative, Norbert Kirchmann and his amateur orchestra (RBM CD 465 108) wouldn't pretend to reach these heights of virtuosity but nevertheless turn in a very creditable attempt and have the added bonus of the only available performance of the lovely Cello Concerto No.1 and of two further works by Raff's contemporary, Carl Reinecke [review]. Unfortunately, Stadlmair's account ( Tudor 7117 - review) is marred by too brusque an approach - much of the work's grandeur is lost.
An emphatic recommendation in favour of Hans Stadlmair's new account from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on Tudor (7113 - review), which couples it with three other overtures and a fine account of the 4th. Symphony. The only competition comes from Marco Polo's Urs Schneider (8.223506 - coupled with the 7th. Symphony), whose lacklustre rendition from the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra lacks the tautness and precision of the newcomer.
cpo's Werner Andreas Albert takes the honours here (999 289 - review). Urs Schneider's Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra produce a characteristically scrappy performance (Marco Polo 8.223638) on a disk which is really recommendable only for having the sole available recording of the Festival March.
This lovely orchestral reworking of a movement from one of the piano suites gets a sonorously Wagnerian performance from Hans Stadlmair for Tudor (7177 - review) which contrasts with the brisker approach of Francesco d'Avalos' stirring account on ASV (DCA 793). Both have their merits.
For the remaining pieces, there is no choice.
In the case of the the Orchestral Suite No.1 the only option is a workmanlike rendition from Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony in a coupling with a rather more exciting version of the Symphony No.5 (Tudor 7077 - review).
The delightful Orchestral Suite No.2 "Hungarian" is available in a fine idiomatic performance from the same stable (Tudor 7108 - review) coupled with a less recommendable reading of the Symphony No.6.
Five overtures and preludes get very persuasive performances in a CD from Sterling (CDS-1085 - review) which couples them with a stunning performance of the Suite for Piano & Orchestra. The two overtures are those to Raff's first opera, König Alfred, and his last, Die Eifersüchtigen. Roland Kluttig draws from the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera big performances which belie their modest forces, bringing grandeur and excitement to the first work and wit and comic verve to the second. Equally recommendable are the three preludes. Two come from the cantata Dornröschen, the first its long-spanned, delicately scored introduction and the second a furious piece depicting a thorn hedge, both performances pitched exactly right The CD closes with the prelude to Act III of a third opera: Samson. The shortest work here, it's filigree textures and sensuous line played with finesse under a deftly played violin solo. Thoroughly recommended.
The overtures to Raff's two unplublished operas Die Parole and Benedetto Marcello are treated to fine, exciting performances from Stadlmair on another Tudor CD (7113 - review) which couples them with equally fine accounts of the Symphony No.4, the Concert Overture and the Dame Kobold Overture. Warmly recommended.