Unfamiliar music by relatively obscure composers can sometimes suffer because the economics of the recording industry dictate that it is only available in recordings played by musicians not of the first rank. A gratifying amount of Raff's music is now available on CD and for several works there is a choice of recordings. This guide identifies the best performance available where there is a choice and what to expect where there isn't.
See the CD discography for full listings of all the recordings mentioned here. Recommended recordings are marked in the discography.
The overall recommendation for Raff's symphonies has to be Tudor's bargain boxed set (Tudor 1600 - review) which not only contains all eleven symphonies but also the four orchestral suites and a further six overtures and other orchestral works in performances from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Hans Stadlmair. See below for comments on how each symphony's performance compares with those on offer from rival labels, but in general it is fair to say that Stadlmair's interpretations are more often than not the ones to be preferred, making this set an irresistible choice for anyone wanting to acquire the symphonies in one fell swoop.
For many years the only recording of Raff's sprawling 1st. Symphony To the Fatherland was the sprawling performance from Friedman and the Rhenish Philharmonic Orch. from Marco Polo (8.223165) - recently transferred to Naxos (8.555411 - review). One sensed that more tautness and dynamism here would make a much better case for this big score. Stadlmair's brand new reading (Tudor 7099 - review) proves the point and both the orchestra and sound are in a different league. Friedman may be a more attractive buy for the merely curious but Stadlmair's reading is so much more persuasive that it is the clear recommendation here.
Järvi's new recording on Chandos of the 2nd. Symphony (Chandos CHSA 5117 - review) is a distinct improvement on Stadlmair's reliable but duller account for Tudor (Tudor 7102 - review) and is preferable in every respect to Schneider's alternative in the ageing cycle from Marco Polo (8.223630 - review). To anyone whose only experience of the piece is the earlier recordings, Järvi's this will come as revelation. The work is transformed into a symphony of stature, glowing with colour. The sound is ear poppingly good, the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is in cracking form and the generous coupling of the four Shakespeare Preludes in wonderfully persuasive performances make this an unmissable CD for any Raff enthusiast.
Hans Stadlmair is also first choice amongst the four contenders for the Symphony No.3 "In the Forest" (Tudor 7088 - review) - one of the seminal works from the symphonic canon. Whilst D'Avalos (ASV DCA 793) paces both the internal movements more convincingly, Stadlmair's new recording captures most satisfyingly the boundless joi de vivre of the first movement and threatening excitement of the finale - and it has the added bonus of a perfectly lovely account of the beguiling "Italian" Suite. Wetton (review) is serviceable but doesn't excite or delight and Schneider is ruled out by a huge cut in the finale.
For the 4th. Symphony there is a choice of three. Davon-Whetton on mid-price Hyperion Helios (CDH 55017 coupled with the 3rd. Symphony - review), Schneider on Marco Polo (8.223529 coupled with the 11th.) and Stadlmair from Tudor (7113 - review). Whilst his scratch orchestra is not top flight, Whetton has an urgency, a feeling for the architecture of the larger movements and an eye for detail which gives some edge to his reading. Overall, Wetton's enthusiastic performance is preferable to Schneider's laconic and unconvincing account, particularly at the cheaper price. Unfortunately his coupling is rather a hum drum account of the 3rd. Symphony. However he is totally outclassed by Stadlmair's new offering, which gives us a superbly played and recorded account of a top notch interpretation. Stadlmair's feel for Raff is second to none and he gives this, the shortest and one of the finest of the symphonies, a rendition which brings out the works true stature. The CD has the added attraction a highly attractive coupling - three of Raff's opera overtures and the Concert Overture. Warmly recommended.
Without doubt, for many years the only recommendable recording of a Raff work was Bernard Herrmann's interpretation of the Lenore Symphony (Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2031). Although now withdrawn, it is still widely available and should be snapped up. The piece stands forth in all its greatness in Herrmann's interpretation, although his tempi are slower than anyone else's, and especially Raff's own .
Of the six versions of this essential work currently available, the preferred choices have to be Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Tudor 7077 - review) and Järvi and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Chandos CHAN 5315 - review). Stadlmair's is the safer and more "traditional" account and a thoroughly satisfying one in many respects, fully up to Herrmann's standard and bettering it in his faster tempi. There is a generous coupling in the five movement 1st. Orchestral Suite, which receives a persuasive performance. Järvi comes closest to Raff's own tempi, but may be too fast in the first movement for someone who has heard this work before an dbecoem used to readings such as Herrmann's. He has by far the best orchestra and sound of any of the releases, though, and his is far and away the mosts exciting account. Järvi also benefits from a very generous coupling of three opera overtures and two shorter orchestral pieces, each of them the best readings which we have. Of the other contenders, Carthy (review), although slower overall than Järvi, feels much more rushed, and Butt (review) is dismally lacklustre. Schneider (review) offers a generally reliable but not very inspiring account. The same can be said for Bamert (Koch 367932), but the recent re-issue of his account at a super budget price makes it a much more attractive proposition for the penny-pinching curious.
Unfortunately neither of the competing recordings of the Sixth Symphony are thoroughly recommendable. The elderly Marco Polo performance under Schneider (Marco Polo 8.223638) is marred by muddy sound and scrappy playing, coupled with a generally lacklustre interpretation. The one exception to that - the slow movement - is wrecked by Stadlmair in his new Tudor recording (Tudor 7108) by being far too fast. The other three movements are a improvement over Schneider and the Bambergers' playing and Tudor's sound also offer great improvement. This CD is recommendable, however, for a fine performance of the Hungarian Suite.
There's almost a tie for the recommendation here. When it was released, Stadlmair's 2004 issue for Tudor (Tudor 7117 - review) won on almost every count over Schneider's lacklustre account on Marco Polo (Marco Polo 8.223506). The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra seem to revel in Stadlmair's quick tempi and the sound, too, is streets ahead. Only in the slow movement is the older recording to be preferred, but it's not enough to outweigh the leaden tempi elsewhere. Barely a month later, however, Werner Andreas Albert's account for cpo (999 289 - review) arrived. He gets the slow movement right and is Stadlmair's equal in the other three movements. It's an outstanding account and is marginally preferable to Stadlmair's. That said, you wouldn't go wrong with either.
Amazingly, there are now four sets of Raff's "Seasons" symphonies (Nos.8-11). Marco Polo offer No.8 and No.9 squeezed onto one CD (8.223362), No.10 on 8.223321 (also now available on Naxos 8.555491 - review) and No.11 on 8.223529. The recordings date from the 1990s and are played by the Slovakian Kosice orchestra in its various incarnations under Swiss conductor Urs Schneider. Recorded around the same time, but issued only in 2004 is cpo's 2 CD set (999 536 - review) in which Werner Andreas Albert conducts the Philharmonia Hungarica.
Tudor have brand new offerings in the shape of two CDs which couple the Spring and Autumn Symphonies (Nos.8 & 10, on Tudor 7127 - review) and those depicting Summer and Winter (Nos.9 & 11, on Tudor 7120 - review). These performances from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Hans Stadlmair replace a quartet of CDs (Tudor 784-7) which are transfers of LP recordings of the 1970s and 1980s featuring the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra under various conductors. These recordings have always been hard to find and will get scarcer to track down with time.
None of the alternative cycles offers a satisfying account of the Symphony No.8 Frühlingsklänge. The fine Bamberg band performs heroics in keeping up with Stadlmair's rushed interpretation which strips the work of much of its grandeur, although the finale is relatively successful. Marginally slower is Schneider's performance which, in common with those of the other three symphonies, suffers from phrasing which trivialises the music and tempi which refuse to linger even momentarily over lovely details. The Kosice orchestra is often scrappy, too. György Lehel on the older Tudor CD gives us a laboured account which works well only in the sentimental slow movement. Albert should be the clear winner here and so he is on the strength of his interpretation, but the performance is let down by poor sound and editing and some doubtful ensemble amongst his players. Overall Albert gets the crown, but only as the best of a bad bunch. This wonderful work deserves better.
Stadlmair is the clear winner for Symphonies Nos.9, 10 & 11. His judgement of tempi is generally persuasively flexible, if sometimes a little on the brisk side. Warm and spacious sound showcases both the wide dynamic range of his interpretations and the impeccable playing of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Raff's finales can seem lacklustre but in each case Stadlmair gives them a convincing and satisfying stature. In general Schneider's performances suffer from a feeling of being too rushed both in preparation and execution, although they are generally marginally longer than Stadlmair's and particularly so in the slow movements. He also makes a large cut in the Symphony No.9's finale.
The old Tudor recordings have the advantage of some wonderfully atmospheric brass playing by the Basel Orchestra but in all three performances the tempi are generally leaden in the faster movements. The slow movements come off best here. To make matters worse, Jean-Marie Auberson unfortunately duplicates Schneider's cut in No.9's finale. Albert's Nos.9-11 are improvements on his No.8, but the Philharmonia Hungarica aren't always on top form, cpo's sound is uncharacteristically recessed and, although Albert comes closest to Stadlmair in the interpretation stakes, the opening movements are uniformly underpowered.
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