Four Shakespeare Preludes: Der Sturm WoO.49, Macbeth WoO.50, Romeo & Juliet WoO.51, Othello WoO.52, Elegie WoO.48 and Festival Overture op.117
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7128 2004 DDD 65:46
There are four recording premieres amongst this collection of six of Raff's shorter orchestral works. The Elegie for orchestra, his first attempt at a slow movement for the 10th. Symphony, is available on disk for the first time, together with the Festival Overture and the two Shakespeare preludes which remain unpublished - Der Sturm and Othello. The more familar Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet complete the programme. Hans Stadlmair, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and the Tudor label itself need no introduction to Raff enthusiasts - this outstanding partnership has blessed us with many fine recordings of his music over the last few years.
Stadlmair's reputation as a top notch Raff conductor makes it all the more confounding when one comes across an issue which fails to excite. Yet, despite the premieres, this is one such. There is something humdrum about most of these performances, but it is difficult to pin down what it is. To be sure, some of the scores aren't Raff's best, but Macbeth and the Elegie are amongst his finest creations. The Bambergers play well and Stadlmair's tempi remain as brisk as ever, and yet there isn't much excitement here. The brass doesn't blaze when it should (the trumpet fanfares at 5:38 in Der Sturm, for example); Raff's characteristic woodwind chatters away, but one isn't left breathless by it.
The recording ambiance must bear some of the responsibility. The dynamic range doesn't seem to be as great as in the recent 4th. Symphony CD (Tudor 7113 - review) for example, although, unusually for me, headphones produced better results than loudspeakers. The sound is also more distant - lacking the immediacy and warmth which one has become used to from Tudor.
Unfortunately, it isn't only the sound quality. Most of these readings lack commitment, having more the character of competent read throughs than full blooded performances. In the Shakespeare Preludes (not Overtures as the CD calls them) it appears that Stadlmair has not realised that each of the themes can be identified with the principals of each play. What we get is a well played musical landscape, rather than a carefully thought through shifting portrait of the jealousies, passions and fears of some of the bard's greatest characters.
Der Sturm (The Tempest) is the longest and most diffuse of the four Shakespeare works and probably the weakest of them. It comes across here as being a rambling succession of attractive ideas which are linked to the events of the play in a straightforward way. It begins with a rather tame storm, for instance. Stadlmair could have whipped up more excitement here. Elsewhere, although he is usually good at maintaining the momentum in symphonic movements, he seems content to string its contrasting episodes together whilst neglecting the underlying pulse which drives the piece forward. Not a persuasive start.
Othello is not much of a success under Stadlmair's baton, either. There's no melting lyricism in the potentially sumptuous Desdemona theme - it's unattractively halting and foursquare. Neither is the theme of the Moor himself presented with the necessary combination of energy and menace. The whole work is spun from these two contrasting motifs and Stadlmair's misreading of them results in a lack of tension in the piece. Despite a lot of surface busyness, Othello comes across here as pretty empty.
Macbeth is without doubt a Raff masterpiece and here we do get an adequate, if not inspired, performance. As with Othello, though, Stadlmair doesn't seem to have paired the motivic fragments with the dramatis personae. Lady Macbeth's theme, for instance, lacks the seductive and slippery quality which it should have. Schneider, despite his sometimes insecure Slovak orchestra (Marco Polo 8.223630) gives as good an interpretation, but the virtuoso playing of Stadlmair's Bamberger's gives him the edge.
Romeo and Juliet has always suffered by comparison with Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. Raff's storytelling concentrates on the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets rather than on the central love story, and as a result the work has an unexpectedly combative air. Stadlmair's general approach and his usual brisk pace are well suited to this and he makes a better case for the work than do his competitors (Schneider on Marco Polo and the much better D'Avalos on ASV). As one would expect, he is faster than they, and this gives the work an attractive edgy quality. So, a qualified success.
The best (and shortest) of the works on the disk is the passionate Elegie. Here the mournful introductory duet for the clarinet and oboe is beautifully played, before the orchestra quickly take over and build to the first passionate climax, emphasising the almost Tchaikovskian orchestration. Stadlmair really ratchets up the excitement in the lead up to the joyous central section, making its passing all the more an angrily crestfallen experience. This is a fine piece, persuasively put across.
The expansive Festival Overture features at its start one of those arrestingly gorgeous melodies which Raff could turn out seemingly at will, so listening to the Overture is a pleasure and Stadlmair's rendition is certainly easy on the ear. He does a good job of sustaining one's interest, although he could have eased up on the tempi more frequently to give Raff's delightful orchestration a chance to speak for itself. Overall, and despite its length, it does indeed have a rather rushed feel.
It isn't good practice in a review to compare commercial recordings with broadcasts, but I was struck by how superior in all but the Elegie are the performances of these works which were recorded for cpo in the 1980s by Werner Andreas Albert and the Philharmonia Hungarica. Although they seem destined not to appear on CD because of contractual problems, radio broadcasts of them demonstrated a much greater understanding by Albert of the psychological drama of the Shakespeare Preludes and a convincingly broader approach to the Festival Overture. They are altogether more satisfying performances.
Alfred Beaujean's insert notes are informative and enthusiastic but overall this is a disappointing release. Recommendable on its merits for the Elegie and Romeo and Juliet, but otherwise purely because it is the only way of hearing Der Sturm, Othello and the Festival Overture.
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