String Quartet No.2 Op.90, String Quartet No.3 Op.136, String Quartet No.4 Op.137 and String Quartet No.8 Suite in Canon Form Op.192 no.3
Mannheim String Quartet
cpo 777 004 2015 DDD 2 CDs 128:05
The first CD in this series [cpo 777 003 - review] appeared in 2004 and, although the Mannheim Quartet were known to have recorded more in Raff's canon of eight quartets, in the intervening eleven years I had abandoned all hope of any more of them appearing on CD. The unexpected arrival of not two, but four, is a very welcome surprise.
Only one of these works has appeared on CD before. The Quartetto di Milano's rendition of the Second Quartet (Tudor 7116 - review] received a warm welcome form me when it appeared in 2004. This alternative view of the highly romantic work sees the Mannheimers take a generally more relaxed view of what is, it must be admitted, already an uncharacteristically rhapsodic work by Raff's standards. Overall length is a poor basis of comparison: the Italian's polish the work off in 38:31 and the Germans take 40:44 but, despite this, generally speaking there is very little to choose between the two readings. Only the slow movement provides a marked contrast, and here the walking pace adopted by Tudor's musicians seems preferable to the slower tempo of the Mannheimers, which makes the piece more episodic and hesitant. That said, there is a warm glow to their whole performance of this ingratiating work, which sets it apart from the Quartetto di Milano's more brilliant lyricism. Honours about even, then.
The other three works on this double album are all recording premières, and so doubly welcome to the Raff completist. The String Quartet No.3 shares the first disc with its predecessor. It was the first of three quartets which Raff composed in the winter of 1866-67 as a diversion whilst he was laid low by illness. Despite this, the opening Allegro is a generally sunny affair, lyrical and warm-hearted in the best Raff manner, but not without the occasional briefly dramatic interlude. It's followed by an engagingly brief second movement in which briskly businesslike outer sections enclose a sonorously lyrical trio. The slow movement is a set of wonderfully inventive variations on an unprepossessing opening theme. These little gems sparkle under the bows of the Mannheimers, who seem to revel in the contrasting textures and dynamics which lead to its serene close. The finale, sometimes the weakest of Raff's movements to modern ears, again sees him on good form, It's short enough not to outstay its welcome, flitting from one quicksilver episode to the next and provoking a satisfying display of dexterity from the performers. This is an admirable performance of a very winning work.
It's a tribute to Raff's inventiveness that his Fourth String Quartet, composed at the same time as the Third, should provide such a contrast. It is a more urgent utterance, hardly angst-ridden, but less easy going that its predecessor. Raff throws us straight into the Allegro patetico, played by the Mannheim Quartet with an edge-of-seat passion which suits the music perfectly. There's an almost hysterical tinge to the jollity which periodically bursts through in the skittering second movement. The Andante which follows is a ruminative and rather melancholy rondo, not as melodically rich as many of Raff's slow movements, but making up for that with a sustained atmosphere of anxious introspection, which is enhanced by several contrasting episodes where the tempo picks up. A rhapsodic opening leads into recollections of the first and third movements before launching into the final Presto proper, which dissipates the tensions of the rest of the Quartet in jubilant, celebratory music. The Mannheim Quartet deliver a well paced and vibrant interpretation of this passionate and emotionally charged piece with conviction and understated virtuosity.
Raff's final quartet, the third of a second trio of such works, is subtitled Suite in Canon Form, and it was quite deliberately a showcase for the huge technical arsenal which this cleverest of composers had amassed over the years. As with most of his suites, Raff here attempts to "pour new wine into old bottles" and revive baroque musical forms by adapting them to romantic ideas of melody and harmony. The first movement is a sprightly march, delivered with infectious élan, and with its contrasting trio nicely pointed. The Sarabande second movement is a stately dance, and it's in sharp contrast with the spiky Capriccio which follows it. The longest movement (at 4:43) is a melodious Arie which Raff treats in double canon. There follow in quick succession a Gavotte & Musette, Minuet and a final, helter-skelter Gigue. It's all over in 23 minutes and it's a tribute to the players' versatility that they manage to pull off its contradictory and technically difficult balancing act with such convincing aplomb.
The recordings were made in co-operation with Germany's SudWest Radio in 2006 (Quartets Nos.4 and 8) and 2007 (Nos.2 and 3). To my ears the latter have a slightly more brilliant, immediate acoustic, and the former are warmer and a little more recessed, but to be honest the sound suits the music admirably and I'm only splitting hairs. No hair-splitting when it comes to Matthias Wiegandt's excellent informative notes, which are in stark contrast to the philosophical horrors sometimes inflicted on us by cpo. Ten years ago I wrote "this is a fine first Raff disk from the Mannheim Quartet and I'm looking forward eagerly to the second one", never dreaming that that it would take ten years to arrive. Let's hope that we don't have to wait until 2025 for the final pair of quartets, but if we do then it'll be worth it, just as this release has proved to be.
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