String Quartet No.1 op.77 and String Quartet No.7 Die
schöne Müllerin op.192 No.2
Quartetto di Milano
Tudor 7079 2000 DDD 68:56
We Raff devotees have had to get used to recordings of his works which are often less than ideal - the performers not up to the music's technical demands, the interpretation pedestrian or the sound poor. We tolerate having to filter the music through our mind's ear to hear what Raff had intended. Of all the Raff discography, perhaps only Herrmann's pioneering recording of the Lenore Symphony can be recommended to a newcomer to Raff without apology or explanation, confident that it won't do him a disservice. Now, after nearly 30 years, we can add a second CD to that list!.
Make no mistake, both the Quartetto di Milano and Tudor do Raff proud in an issue which should be on every Raffianer's shopping list.
The discography reveals surprisingly few gaps amongst Raff's orchestral works - but that is in stark contrast with his large chamber music output where the sole available works up until now are the String Octet and the Raff Society's own recordings of the Piano Trio No.1, Violin Sonata No.1 and the Cello Sonata. Now here are two of the master's most celebrated chamber works, in performances which not only amply illustrate the reasons for the two quartets' fame in their day but also serve as ambassadors for the genius of Raff's art.
From the first, hesitant notes of the opening movement of the Quartet No.1 it's clear that the technical skill of the Italians is beyond doubt. The tentative opening phrase is beautifully delivered and the following passionate and episodic movement is masterfully played out with a confidence and drama which reveals Raff the young romantic in all his youthful vigour. The succeeding gossamer-light scherzo is a tour de force. Dazzlingly fast, it is note perfect and very exciting. The filigree textures remind one of Mendelssohn, though imbued with a character which is uniquely Raff's. The Milano team are at their best in the slow movement. Raff's ever-varying sombre textures are punctuated with dissonances and tempi fluctuations which they integrate to achieve a tragic and regretful atmosphere for this impressive nocturnal piece. The contrapuntal finale, whilst perhaps not quite on the level of inspiration of the other movements is, in this interpretation, a fitting conclusion. Again, the security and conviction of the playing means that the music is presented in the best possible light.
Whilst the String Quartet No.7 was arguably Raff's most famous chamber work, it comes across here as the lesser piece, lovely though it is. Full of grace and charm, but little genuine passion or drama. Expertly written in all respects, but hardly adventurous - a gentle pastoral tale. Such is the confidence that one has in the Quartetto di Milano that one is left with the conclusion that the fault is Raff's, not theirs! In the 19 years separating the two works Raff had somehow lost some of the romantic ardour of Weimar and replaced it with the bourgeois safety of Wiesbaden. That said, the second "Mill" movement - another old Raff war horse - is impeccably delivered and the third movement portrait of the miller maid herself is a lush wallow of melody, briefly interrupted by a short interlude of comparative angst. In these and the quartet's other five movements the Quartetto di Milano play with feeling and intelligence, making it clear why the work was once such a favourite. Overall, however, despite the beauties on display one is left wishing for more of the passionate 1st. than the charming 7th. -although the "Beautiful Miller Maid" could hardly hope for better advocates than the Italians.
The Quartetto di Milano are clearly a well matched team, playing this lovely music with precision, intelligence and passion. Their choice of tempi is exemplary and their ability to bring out every nuance of Raff's often complex textures is very satisfying. They are complemented by a good recording from Tudor - plenty of presence, with each instrument clearly in focus yet blending into a satisfying whole.
Go out and buy it now - and write to Tudor asking for more!!
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