Naxos 8.570202
Naxos 8.570202

CD Reviews: Duo on Wagner's Lohengrin

Duo for piano & violin on motifs from Richard Wagner's Lohengrin op.63 no.3 and other fantasies and arrangements of music from well known operas by eight other composers

Livia Sohn, violin and Benjamin Loeb, piano
Naxos 8.570202 2007 DDD 66:15

Although the ubiquitous Cavatine has its place on myriad compilation CDs, it's good to see another and more substantial example of Raff's brotarbeit cropping up on this enterprising and imaginative collection of arrangements for violin and piano of tunes from nine generally well known operas.

Raff wrote his "Three Duos for piano and violin on motifs from Richard Wagner's operas" op.63 in 1853, when he was living in Weimar. A member of Liszt's circle, he succumbed to Wagner's spell and then almost immediately began distancing himself from him, a process which took him the rest of his life. The three duos show Raff rejecting Wagner's concept of music as an all-embracing art form and instead producing purely classical compositions crafted from melodies he selected from the operas The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.

The third of these begins with disarming simplicity. The pianist picks out, unharmonised, the opera's famous Wedding March but it soon develops into an extremely effective piece in which both players get their fair share of soaring lyricism and captivating fireworks. Throughout this concoction though, Raff employs the march and the other Lohengrin melodies sympathetically, developing Wagner's material in a very un-Wagnerian manner. The result is a composition which, if one were unaware of the opera, could fairly be regarded as a very successful, heartfelt and convincing display piece for the two instruments.

The music is well within the compass of violinist Livia Sohn. Coping effortlessly with Raff's pyrotechnics as well as delivering satisfying sweetness in the lyrical sections, she is well matched with pianist Benjamin Loeb whose rather more sober style is in appropriate contrast. The duo deliver a satisfying and intelligent performance which doesn't in any way denigrate this piece as a mere "opera fantasy". There's plenty of excitement in the faster pages and the sensuality and passion which they bring to the climaxes is gorgeous (try 6:10 for example).

Listen to an audio extarct This extract is the central climax of the piece [2:30]

It is interesting to compare them with the other interpretation which we have: Ingolf Turban and Jascha Nemtsov's performance is part of their survey for cpo of all Raff's music for violin and piano (cpo 999 768 - review). At 9:12, the Naxos pair are within a second of Turban and Nemtsov's timing and applying what might be called the "Joyce Hatto" test and playing the two performances simultaneously reveals a remarkable correspondence over the span of the work, with negligible differences in tempo and dynamics, although the cpo recording is at a rather higher level throughout. Turban and Nemtsov have a lighter touch with the music and Turban's easy legato is much more pronounced in the lyrical passages, but generally there's a coolness and reserve to their interpretation which is refreshingly absent from Sohn and Loeb's. Overall, I rather prefer the Naxos duo because they play the work for all its worth on its own merits, whereas you get the impression that Turban and Nemtsov are faintly embarrassed to be found playing a mere "opera fantasy", no matter how fine it may be.

The other works in the compilation are an interesting mix. Hubay's Carmen Fantasy and Szigeti and Paganini's reworkings of arias from Le Roi d'Ys and Tancredi respectively are traditional, if not familiar, romantic fare. One of a suite of seven pieces arranged from Weill's Dreigroschenoper by Stefan Frenkel introduces a slyly decadent note, but Stephen Prutsman's modern arrangements of music from Der Rosenkavalier (a 16 minute tour de force) and the unfamiliar Ainadamar by Golivov (in which Geoff Nuttall plays a second violin) stay very much within the accessible listening mainstream. The disk is rounded out by Samuel Dushkin's adaptation of an aria from Stravinsky's Mavra and Loeb's own transcription of the famous Au fond du temple saint duet from Bizet's Les pecheurs de perles in which the duo are again joined by Nuttall, this time playing the viola. All these works benefit from the same straightforward but full blooded approach which Sohn and Loeb demonstrate in the Raff. Throughout, the warm recording favours the violin somewhat but not to an unacceptable degree.

At budget price this disk is worth the money for Raff's piece alone, and the recording is an unmissable recommendation if you download just this one track from an online retailer.

Mark Thomas

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