Cello Sonata Op.183, Duo Op.59, Two Fantasy Pieces Op.86 and Two Romances Op.182.
Joseph Mendoes, cello and Taeyeon Lim, piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0341 2016 DDD 68:03
This is an overdue release, filling a large gap in Raff's recorded repertoire. For several years now we have been treated to rival complete cycles of the violin sonatas and piano trios; the piano quartets, piano quintet, all bar one of the string quartets and most of Raff's works for violin and piano are available commercially, but inexplicably not one of his compositions for cello and piano has been available, until now. The recording is the brainchild of the Californian cellist Joseph Mendoes who, convinced of the quality of the Cello Sonata and buoyed by its enthusiastic reception by audiences, initiated a crowd-funding project to record it and Raff's other three opuses in the genre, all of which which fit neatly onto one CD.
The largest and most important work in this collection is the 1873 Cello Sonata. It's a powerful yet ingratiating work, composed when Raff was at the height of his powers. The initial Allegro is a dramatic and incident-packed piece, underpinned by the relentless momentum which characterises so many of Raff's opening movements. The demands it makes on the performers are substantial, and Mendoes and Lim are more than equal to the task both in technique and interpretation. The result is an exhilarating tour de force, carried off with great panache. The following Vivace movement sees them demonstrate all the dexterity and lightness of touch which one could wish for in this attractive Mendelssohnian scherzo. Sonorous lyricism and emotional intensity are the hallmarks of the Adagio, and once again Mendoes and Lim demonstrate the strength of their interpretative partnership in bitter-sweet conversational passages between the two instruments. The relatively carefree final Allegro again taxes the performers with much rapid passage work in a piece which is as melodically rich and harmonically enjoyable as the rest of the composition. All in all, it is difficult to imagine a more satisfying and persuasive performance of this Sonata, now revealed as a major work in Raff's chamber music catalogue.
The 27 minute-long Sonata comes last on the disc, and it's preceded by three works concieved on a smaller scale. The largest, at a shade over 16 minutes duration, is the Duo, originally composed in 1848, and revised in 1867. It's very much a piece of two halves: the first freshly lyrical, the second dramatically virtuosic. Raff's skilfully written transition from one to the other, and the many dramatic contrasts in the latter, are sensitively handled and Lim in particular manages the taxing piano writing with aplomb.
The Two Fantasy Pieces, each a shade under eight minutes long, come from 1854 and both resemble a conversation between the instruments. Although mostly lyrical, the first, "Begenung" [Encounter], features a recurring pizzicato idea which is played with just the right amount of scattiness by Mendoes. Much more intense, and rather less lyrical, is the second Fantasy "Erinnerung" [Remembrance] which builds to a heartfelt climax before subsiding into regretful calm. This short work gets a beautifully judged performance. The two 1873 Romances are the shortest works on the disc. The first is a straightforward outpouring of gorgeous Raffian melody, beautifully played with sustained phrasing by Mendoes. The second is rather more complex and animated piece, but equally memorable.
Toccata's Martin Anderson really has done Raff's reputation a huge service by publishing this recording. There's not a weak piece amongst the works here, and even the shorter and less important ones are performed with the same intelligence, skill and subtlety that Lim and Mendoes each bring to the fine Sonata. Inevitably in this repertoire the spotlight falls on the cellist, but Raff is at pains to title the Sonata as being "for Piano and Cello" - the piano is at least an equal partner and I'm sure that Joseph Mendoes, fine musician that he is, would be the first to acknowledge Taeyeon Lim's flawless contribution as equal to his. I mention this because my only criticism of this important release is that the cello is quite closely miked, which in places gives it a prominence over the piano unintended by Raff. It doesn't get in the way of enjoying the music, but the overall ambiance doesn't have as much "breathing space" as one would be used to in the concert hall. As author of the booklet notes, I'll let the reader form his own opinion of them - Toccata generously makes the booklet freely available here as a pdf download.
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