Divox CDX-20905
Divox CDX-20905

CD Reviews: Piano Quartets Nos.1 & 2

Piano Quartet No.1 in G op.202 no.2 and Piano Quartet No.2 in C minor op.202.no.2

Il Trittico with David Greenlees, viola
Divox CDX-20905 2011 Hybrid SACD 78:09

It was just over three years ago that Raff's two forgotten Piano Quartets were revealed to a modern audience as the tremendous pieces they are. That was at what was described as ""a run-through; something between a rehearsal and a concert", in Basel. Run-through or no, Il Trittico (Jan Schultz, piano, Jonathan Allen, violin and Daniel Pezzotti, cello accompanied by violist David Greenlees) turned in tremendous performances and it was good to leave the concert knowing that arrangements were well in hand for them to be recorded.

It's been a long wait. Long enough for the worry to develop, as this keenly anticipated recording neared release, that it might prove a disappointment. I need not have been concerned and should have remembered what transpired when Il Trittico's performance of the Piano Quintet and the Fantasia appeared on Divox. Just as then, what we now have preserved on the CD are interpretations which add finesse and depth to the passion and immediacy of their live renditions. In short, these performances are stunningly good. If you're likely to find a review full of superlatives tedious, just skip to the end to find out my single small criticism and then place your order.

Listen to an audio extarct This extract from the first third of the G major Quartet's opening movement [2:33]

The G major quartet is the sunnier of the two works but, whilst it begins full of Raffian good humour, this is overtaken by shadows which are dispelled by a last movement which restores the high spirits. Here the work starts in an appropriately positively fashion; fast, but never frantic. The first movement is echt Raff, with its propulsive momentum, delicious melodies and an intricate, well crafted ensemble which is ably demonstrated by Il Trittico and Greenlees in playing of jaw dropping precision. Seldom have twelve musical minutes passed so quickly. Not that it's all drive; the way the transition melts into the cantabile second subject is sheer seduction. The short scherzo movement is no Mendelssohnian faerie creation but has a much darker, almost demonic character. No prisoners are taken here: the poundingly rhythmic outer sections, dominated by piano and violin, are taken at a fiendishly breakneck speed, whilst the mellower, threatening trio is dominated by the lower strings. It's over all too briefly, but is given the sort of edgy, risk-taking performance that has one holding one's breath.

The mood having been darkened, the lovely slow movement continues it, beginning with a piano solo setting the scene with a typically Raffian rolling melody, tinged with more than a hint of regret. As the succeeding variations flow out, the mood gets gloomier and the playing more impassioned. Particularly in the central climax, the emotional intensity of this Andante is searingly strong. The relief of a lighter mood, when it comes near the movement's end, is palpable. Good though the live run through was, this performance far surpasses it in the depth of feeling which is conveyed in this movement in particular. The upbeat finale begins with a reminiscence of the first movement and this prompts the four performers to return to the mix of virtuosity and accuracy which characterised their reading of it. It is choc full of bubble and fizz but happily lacks the emptiness which can sometimes mar a Raff finale. Here we are treated to a tour de force in which the players demonstrate their obvious pleasure in this grateful music. It's a winning end to a hugely persuasive, exhilarating performance.

And there is a handsome second helping: the C minor Quartet.

Listen to an audio extract The end of the C minor Quartet's second movement [2:09]

From the very first bars, this work is invested with a much more histrionic and less upbeat character than the G major Quartet. The opening Allegro is more episodic than its counterpart and Il Trittico revel in the drama for all its worth: the pensive pauses, the almost manic explosions of excitement and the gloomy depths are all conveyed with a feverish intensity. These helter-skelter 14 minutes are played with a really satisfying intensity here. The scherzo is more lyrical and not as madcap as that of the other Piano Quartet, but here it benefits from a finely judged gradual increase in tempo, driven by the piano, which is most exciting and is hardly interrupted by the two appearances of the more serene, but brief trio. The seeming inevitability of its progress is a very satisfying aspect of this interpretation.

The Larghetto which follows opens with a lovely melody from the piano, taken up straightaway by the cello and then the other two instruments. It's a passage of gorgeous lyricism, played with such unapologetic warmth that one is almost sorry that the music moves on to a gloomier, more dramatic section which ends in a series of impeccably played cadenzas for the strings, rewarding one with a welcome return to the emotion-laden opening material. The C minor Quartet is most like its companion piece in the finale, another open-hearted and positive piece, in which these players revel, playing its upbeat passages with a brio and élan matched only by the warmth and lyricism that they pour into its few thoughtful moments of reflection. It's another performance to gladden the heart of anyone who loves Raff's music and which should be capable of converting to the Raff cause anyone who comes across it by chance.

I have avoided mention of any individual in this review, tempting though it is, simply because these tremendous performances are truly a team effort, demonstrate a flawless ensemble, unity of vision and emotional intelligence. Whilst satisfyingly virtuosic at an individual level, they are not in any way egocentric, the evident chemistry between the quartet being focused self-effacingly on letting this marvellous music speak for itself to great and satisfying effect. The notes fly off the page. All in all, seldom have I heard Raff better served by his interpreters than in these performances.

Although I haven't had the opportunity of listening to this recording in its SACD format, this paean of praise continues when it comes to the CD's sound engineering, which is of demonstration quality in the warmth and immediacy of the acoustic and the detail which it conveys.

Writing a review so full of superlatives runs the risk of boring the reader, so let me inject the one negative note I have to add about this recording: it is a great shame that the insert notes, by Raff doyen Avrohom Lecihtling, are only provided in a cut-down form in the booklet. The reduced notes serve adequately and, even in this form, are better than many to be found elsewhere but these are works which are unknown even to Raff enthusiasts. In his original essay, Leichtling provided an even more commendably thorough, informative and insightful job. It's to Divox's credit that they've at least made the full version of Leichtling's text available at this site here.

It's the music which counts, though and, the minor booklet niggle aside, this is a magnificent addition to the Raff discography which deserves to be bought in its thousands.

Mark Thomas

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