MDG 304 1181
MDG 304 1181

CD Reviews: String Sextet and Piano Quintet

String Sextet op.178 and Piano Quintet op.107

Ensemble Villa Musica
MDG 304 1181 2003 DDD 65:47

This welcome disk seems to have been a long time coming - the booklet reveals that the Piano Quintet was recorded way back in April 2001, although the Sextet recording is under a year old. Both works can be numbered amongst Raff's finest creations for chamber ensembles but, despite that, this CD is the recording premiere for the Sextet and the Quintet has only appeared once before - on an Adriano LP of very limited circulation a quarter of a century ago. MDG themselves have an enviable reputation for intelligent performances of unfamiliar repertoire, coupled with sound reproduction of high quality.

The Sextet comes first and it's a winning performance. Raff described this piece as one in which "wit finally outstrips humour" and the Ensemble Villa Musica seem to have this firmly in mind. Even the first movement, where Raff's writing lacks some of his customary transparency, generates a smile in the listener as the themes skip from one desk to another. The textures are busy but clear. The breakneck speed of the Allegro molto second movement never seems forced but, as one begins to wonder at the players' ability to keep up the pace, the charming trio cuts in for just long enough to give the ear some respite before the furious dash resumes - at, if possible, an even faster tempo. In contrast, the Larghetto movement opens very slowly but the eight variations which follow it aren't dawdled over and their variety and ingenuity are clearly relished by the players. Its wistful close is especially touching. The brief shimmering finale is dispatched with a deft lightness of touch which is entirely appropriate to this, one of Raff's cleverest and most engaging works. Well worth the wait.

Listen to an audio extract This extract is from a minute into the 1st. movement of the Sextet [2:00]

All the more disappointing, therefore, to hear the dismal way in which the delicious Piano Quintet is played. One should not take too prescriptively von Bülow's advice that "with Raff, everything goes somewhat briskly", but when a Raff opening Allegro could almost be mistaken for a slow movement then something is seriously amiss. Each phrase is lovingly caressed and beautifully played but it's all too damn slow!

From time to time this magnificent movement threatens to take flight but then the pace slackens and we're back to leisurely admiration of the passing scenery. To be fair, it doesn't really drag, but there is no feeling of commitment here and so the listener feels likewise detached from the music. The Ensemble Villa Musica only consistently hit the right tempo towards the end. The Zürich Piano Quintet in the 1977 LP took 9:59 to deliver this movement with great élan - here it trudges in at 11:25. What a shame.

The succeeding Allegro vivace is somewhat better, but again manages to just miss that fizzing sparkle so evident in the parallel movement of the Sextet. The trio plods dreadfully and sounds banal in the process. It's the same with the beautiful Andante which does drag, despite the many lovely moments conjured up by these high class players. The passionate climaxes are nicely judged but they have no meaning - isolated islands rising from a sea of languorous melody played á la salon. The Allegro brioso finale bucks things up and generally is an improvement over the rest of the piece. Even here, though, the brio itself is in short measure although the tempo is about right. Like the rest of this disappointing performance it has the feel of a practice run through - there isn't much adrenalin, either here or anywhere else in the work.

Listen to an audio extract The extract is from the opening of the Piano Quintet [2:11]. Compare this with the same passage in the LP performance by the Zürich Piano Quintet Listen to an audio extract [1:54].

The two performances have three players in common and it is quite perplexing that a group which has given us such a sparkling and typically Raffian performance of the Sextet has also served up such a misconceived Quintet. As one would expect with players of this calibre, ensemble, accuracy and intonation are not concerns.

MDG's fine sound rather favours the cleaner textures of the Quintet over the Sextet but has a good warm feel to it and has excellent dynamic spread. Raff's biography is surely well known enough by now for it to merit only a couple of paragraphs in booklet notes but here most of the space is devoted to it, at the expense of a longer discussion about the music.

As the only available recording of these two lovely works, this disk is a "must buy" for any Raff enthusiast, but not without a hefty caveat in the case of the Piano Quintet.

Mark Thomas

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