Violin Sonata No.1 op.73, Two Fantasy Pieces op.58, Duo op.59 and Duo op.63 no.2 on motifs from Wagner's Tannhäuser
Ingolf Turban,violin & Jascha Nemtsov, piano
CPO 999 767 2002 DDD 71:53
It is good to see German label CPO getting the bit between their teeth with Raff's chamber music. Hard on the heels of their superb Piano Trios issues they are underlining their commitment to Raff with this new disk - it is a delight to see another CD packed with previously unrecorded music and labeled "Vol. 1". We are promised no less than a complete review of his catalogue for violin and piano stretching over five CDs. With the excitement comes some concern, however. If violinist Ingolf Turban and pianist Jascha Nemtsov aren't the right pair for these works, then a great opportunity would have been missed.
Well, neither recording label nor artists have let us down - this is an excellent start to the series. Turban and Nemtsov are artists of stature and this comes across in these interpretations which are stamped with authority and intelligence. The four works here are all early works - dating from the early 1850s whilst Raff was working with Liszt in Weimar.
The most substantial is the Violin Sonata No.1 which is treated to a stormy reading. Throughout the work Turban's playing has a hard edge to it, lending even the cantabile passages a bitter-sweet quality which is unexpected but not inappropriate. It is particularly noticeable in the first movement where the combination of Nemtsov's precise pianism and Turban's often angry violin tone produce a deliciously atmospheric mix.
The pair play the flighty second movement ultra fast, emphasising its unpredictability and laying to rest any suggestion of it being a comfortable Mendelssohnian affair. Although it would perhaps have been something of a relief if Turban had used a sweeter tone in the slow movement, the pacing is just right (Raff directs "not too slow") and the yearning quality of the material is beautifully brought out. The turbulent, heroic finale is a place for both instrumentalists to shine. It is no mere virtuoso "celebration", but a more positive counterweight to the angst of the first movement and this depth of purpose is well brought out in driven playing of great skill. Perhaps a few moments of relaxation easily could have been afforded without losing the powerful drive of the music. Overall though, the Sonata is revealed as a serious work, played almost as if fresh insights were being offered on a piece already well established in the repertoire.
The two Fantasy Pieces of op.58 are an effective pair of substantial works with similar, mainly gentle, characters. They are sweetly played here - the drive of the Sonata is quite properly missing in this nocturnal music. The important piano part of the first is reminiscent of Chopin and the work's lush melodiousness (with some fine legato playing by Turban) contrasts with the rather less juicy second Fantasy which is played in a more matter of fact way.
The Duo op.59 is a big piece (14 minutes in this performance) which again provokes a satisfyingly lyrical response from Turban in the opening Andantino section. The Allegro Appassionato which follows reveals Nemtsov reveling in the propulsive piano writing and both players capture well the ebb and flow of this delightfully episodic work. Though it arguably outstays its welcome by a few minutes, the fault should fairly be laid at Raff's door rather than the performers'.
The final work is one of Raff's Three Duos on motifs from Wagner's Operas op.63 - this one is No.2 "Tannhaüser". As the insert notes make clear, it is no flashy pot-pourri but more a serious reworking into a coherent musical whole of some of Wagner's themes (but not all - no "pilgrims' chorus" for instance). As with its companion on the "Flying Dutchman", played by the duo recently in Stuttgart, their combination of seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch bring out the best in this curiously satisfying work.
The recording itself and the production values of this release are fully up to CPO's usual high standards and particular praise should go to Georg Albrecht Eckle's extensive and thought provoking essay in the booklet. Whilst the Violin Sonata No.1 could perhaps have been rather less hard-driven in places that really is a carping criticism. These unfamiliar works could hardly wish for better interpretations to re-introduce them to the repertoire.
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