String Quartet No.2 op.90 and String Quartet No.6 Suite in älterer form op.192 No.1
Quartetto di Milano
Tudor 7116 2004 DDD 67:44
In 2000, the Quartetto di Milano's performance on disk of the first and seventh string quartets was ground breaking. It was the first of a remarkable run of recordings from Tudor and other labels which has favoured Raff enthusiasts with high quality modern recordings of fine performances of his music. A quick sequel might have been expected, but it wasn't until 2002 that the quartet recorded these two works, and we've had to wait another couple of years to hear the result. Once again, we are treated to a pair of recording premieres from amongst Raff's eight surviving quartets.
The String Quartet No.2 was written in 1857, at a happy time for Raff when he had shaken off Liszt's influence and moved to Wiesbaden to join his fiancée. It is a big, 38 minute, four movement work. The Sixth Quartet (which comes first on the disc), is a very different piece. Subtitled "Suite in Olden Form", it dates from 17 years later and is one of Raff's homages to the baroque. It's five movements last a little under half an hour and it has a much more domestic character.
On their original disk, the Milanese were almost miraculously in harmony with the music. Unfortunately, the intervening years seem have introduced an air of detachment to their playing, if the Sixth Quartet is anything to go by. The reserve in the Larghetto opening to the Präludium is attractive, but it translates into an odd lack of commitment in the fugal Allegro which follows. The playing is beautifully finished, the tempi appropriate and the dynamic range broad; yet the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There is an absence of warmth which makes this a surprisingly unsatisfying performance, despite its technical merits. The Menuett second movement is again a technically brilliant but rather sterile experience. The delightful Gavotte and Musette which follows has some genuine vitality, but there is an absence of feeling in the slow movement's Largo, which receives a disappointingly matter of fact reading. The concluding Gigue-Finale also fails to excite. One concentrates on the note-spinning at the expense of anything deeper.
Overall then, a performance which gets everything right on paper, but which doesn't connect at an emotional level. There was just one change in the quartet's line up between the two recordings - surely not enough to have wrought such a different result? Perhaps the piece just wasn't to their taste.
Although this is currently the only performance available of this work, the Mannheim Quartet have also recorded it for an upcoming cpo CD and, on the evidence of a radio broadcast of their rendition, that's the one to wait for [now issued as cpo 777 003 - review].
Luckily, the Italians seem much more at home in the overtly romantic String Quartet No.2. Its opening movement (Rasch, jedoch ruhig), contrasting a rhythmic first subject with a lusciously lyrical second theme, takes well over 14 minutes in this performance. Despite its length, Raff's rhapsodic sonata form never bores in this taut and lively rendition. The gradual build up of tension in the closing bars is especially effective. The fleet-footed second movement is a Rondo, in which Raff's strongly rhythmic rondo theme is sandwiched between the ever changing textures of a series of lyrical episodes, played with shimmering delicacy.
The slow movement is taken at a walking pace and has an deeply anxious air to it. In keeping with the music's character, Quartetto di Milano keep the legato to a minimum and keep the momentum going. Throughout there is no respite from the stubborn repetition of a fateful seven note motif. Even the bleak climax fails to give any release and the movement closes with as much anxiety as it began. As is proper in a romantic work, relief comes in a joyous finale. The players give ample evidence of their virtuosity in a movement which is as good natured as many of Raff's finales, whilst having more substance than some. Fleeting reminiscences of the preceding movements serve to resolve the tension of the first movement and the angst of the third. In all of this, the Milanese give a fine account of themselves.
This then, is disk of two halves. In the romantic, complex, emotion-laden String Quartet No.2, the Quartetto di Milano shine as they did in their previous offerings. Unfortunately, the baroque-inspired No.6 provokes a more mechanical performance, lacking the spark of life. The recording ambiance conjured up by Tudor's engineers is fully up to the standard which we have come to expect from the Swiss company, and the insert notes are informative without being lavish.
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