Sonatilles op.99 and Six Morceaux op.85
Michaela Paetsch Neftel, violin & Eric Le Van, piano
Tudor 7109 2003 DDD 67:45
Of course I'd prefer you to read the full review, but if you want it in a sentence then here it is: If you plan to buy only one Raff recording this year, then this is the one.
These sets of pieces for violin and piano find Raff at his best - miniatures in which moments of ravishing beauty and tender introspection alternate with episodes of wry wit and quicksilver excitement, all written with a master's skill and economy. Neftel and Le Van play them with just the right combination of care, joi de vivre and seriousness.
The Ten Sonatilles were a late (1880) arrangement of the Three Sonatilles for piano which Raff originally composed in 1861. Only in a couple of these utterly delightful pieces would one suspect their heritage, so idiomatic is his writing for the two instruments. The name implies that the original three piano works were a species of mini-sonata and that properly conveys the feeling of each of these movements. Unlike the Six Morceaux with which they share this CD, they are not "just" salon music. Despite all their elegance, charm and melodic profusion, the Sonatilles have a serious edge to them which sets them slightly apart. This is their recording premiere.
There are some gems amongst the collection, which lasts almost 44 minutes in this performance. The Allegro agitato No.1 is a fine virile opening movement, typical of its composer and the breathless Presto possibile of the Tarantelle No.3 is dashed off in whirlwind fashion by Neftel and Le Van. No.5's Scherzo is a puckish delight which perhaps betrays its piano-only ancestry more than most, whereas the following Larghetto quasi Andante is dominated by the violin and features one of those sumptuous regret-tinged melodies of which Raff makes such effective use. The slow Theme and Variations of No.8 is another characteristically witty Raff creation and the concluding Adagio-Vivacissimo might force a smile from even the most dour anti-Raff academician.
The Six Morceaux op.85 date from a couple of years earlier and were written from the start for violin and piano. Turban and Nemtsov pipped the American pair to the post - cpo's competing CD [review] being released just a few months earlier. In the Morceaux both are highly recommendable but they have quite different characters. The Tudor performance is substantially longer - 23:38 against 20:04 and the performances here are certainly more relaxed and less "edgy" than with Turban and Nemtsov.
The three fast movements are pretty much indistinguishable from the cpo equivalents with the Scherzino and Tarantelle going "hell for leather". It's the three slower pieces over which the extra time is taken. Both the enigmatic Pastorale No.2 and the lovely Canzona No.4 are very nicely judged - the music never drags. The most noticeable contrast is in the renowned Cavatina No.3 where Neftel adopts a very measured tempo which does seem funereal but then builds that wonderful melody to a fine climax full of pathos, underlined by a close which reeks of regret. Turban's much faster approach (3:12 compared with 4:56!) is more dramatic and cohesive but doesn't tug at the heart strings at the end in the same way.
In both sets Le Van's sensitively delivered piano part is rather more prominent than Nemtsov's self-effacing contribution in the Morceaux for cpo, but it's a slight difference. Michaela Paetsch Neftel matches Ingolf Turban's virtuosity note for note and has a real feel for the emotion parceled up in even these, on the face of it, slight works. The slow pieces are taken about as slow as they can bear - rather beyond that in the case of op.85's Cavatina and op.99's Larghetto No.2 but the contrasting fast movements are all the more exhilarating.
All in all, these are fine performances. The sound is clear and well forward, with plenty of dynamic contrast. Eric Le Van's insert notes [read online] are a model of their kind - would that more were like them. Recommended without any misgivings.
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