Piano Quintet op.102 & Fantasie for Piano Quintet op.207b and Hermann Goetz: Piano Quintet op.16
Il Trittico with Davis Greenlees, viola; Anahit Kurtikyan (Raff), violin and Dariusz Mizera, double bass (Goetz)
Divox CDX-20506 2008 DDD 79:08
When Il Trittico released their two CD set of the four piano trios a few years ago (review), I gave it a rather reserved welcome in the face of stiff competition from cpo's Trio Opus 8. Since then I have had to eat my words. Twice. The augmented trio gave a magnificent performance of the Piano Quintet in Rapperswil three years ago, and only last month they delivered stunning performances of the two Piano Quartets in Basel. Talking to Jonathan Allen, violin, Jan Schultz, piano and Daniel Pezotti, cello, it's clear that they thoroughly enjoy Raff's music and recognise its worth. These concert performances have certainly made it clear they have Raff's measure and are capable of turning in musically satisfying and technically rewarding interpretations, showing off these fine works in the best possible light.
It's taken some time for that Quintet performance to be preserved on CD but it's here at last, with the bonus of Raff's only other work for piano quintet, the Fantasie, together with Goetz's Quintet. Although the Fantasie is a premiere recording, the Piano Quintet itself has already been recorded. Ensemble Villa Musica couple it with the String Sextet on an MDG disc. Paraphrasing my review of that CD, it's a dismal, dreary rendition and so my hopes were very high on receiving a preview copy of this Divox recording that it would show the work in a much better light.
The Piano Quintet comes first and if anything it's both a stronger and a more refined reading than their concert performance. The opening Allegro is taken pretty much at an ideal pace: it moves along well, but there's plenty of time to enjoy the scenery along the way. This is a lyrical but not leisurely reading. There's none of the dawdling lethargy which infects Ensemble Villa Musica, who take a minute longer over it. Il Trittico's ensemble is impeccable and the recording balance is pretty much perfect. It's the same story with the Presto second movement, which trips along in a most satisfying way, the excitement mounting until it relaxes into the trio. Its felicitous details are really brought out by the players in playing of great delicacy, which never lapses into preciousness. The return to the faster material is a really exciting passage and this continues as the movement is driven home to a whirling end.
The third movement is a joy. Its melodic beauties are brought to the fore in a reading of passionate reserve; the first climax around 2:57 is a spine tingling moment. Although at 10:53 Il Trittico again take a minute less than their MDG rivals, nothing seems rushed and this glorious music is allowed to speak for itself. If I were to have to choose just one performance to demonstrate to someone Raff's strengths as a composer, this would be a very strong contender. The Allegro brioso finale is taken at an appropriately cracking pace, but the players' peerless technique and the fine recording ensures that every minor detail is retained. Although this movement was the best in Ensemble Villa Musica's misjudged account, it is just not in the same league as this performance. Il Trittico take Raff's brioso instruction to heart and we are treated to a wonderfully good natured whirling conclusion, rounding off one of the most compelling Raff interpretations I have heard for some time. Truly the performance which this masterpiece deserves.
The Fantasie, if not music of quite as high an order, is another work of real quality and it gets a hugely persuasive performance here. It's cast in one continuous 18 minute movement, but falls clearly into three contrasting fast-slow-fast sections. The brief opening section is dramatic and eventful but soon dissolves into the much longer Larghetto which is played with great tenderness and finesse. It's fair to say that it isn't as melodically rich as many of Raff's slow movements, but here Il Trittico make the very best case for it and bring out its anguished yearning quality very well. The abrupt beginning of the closing Allegro brings a return to the opening material before Raff launches properly into the infectiously jolly conclusion, which must rank as one his most energetic and enjoyable finales. Il Trittico excel in this sparking confection and I defy anyone not to listen to it without a smile.
Goetz's Piano Quintet concludes the disc and he substitutes a double bass for the second violin. Here Il Trittico's momentum, which so suits Raff, sometimes seems a bit too driven for its darker textures in the outer movements. Possibly Goetz's melodies are a bit less robust than Raff's and so need more delicacy here and there to fully flower, but otherwise the performance exhibits all the merits which Il Trittico and their colleagues bring to the two Raff works.
It would be invidious to single out any of the performers for special mention, although each of them play superbly, because throughout they demonstrate true ensemble playing of such a high standard. The recording's ambiance is warm, the aural positioning is exemplary and the instrumental balance is of demonstration quality. The insert notes by highly respected Raff doyen Avrohom Leichtling are up to his usual very high standard and bring valuable new insights to the Piano Quintet in particular. All in all, the only thing which I can find wrong with this release is that there wasn't a third Raff work for Piano Quintet which could be included in place of Goetz's (admittedly fine) work!
Finally, lest I be accused of gushing overmuch, here's the verdict of perhaps the greatest of today's Raff experts, Volker Tosta: "I was delighted throughout with this new recording. The quintet op.107 sounded to me as if I heard it for the first time ever, a true revelation!" In sum, you simply must buy this recording.
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