Suite for Piano & Orchestra op.200, Overtures: Die Eifersüchtigen & König Alfred, Prelude & Die Dornhecke Intermezzo from Dornröschen, Prelude: Act III of Samson.
Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera, Umeå, conducted by Roland Kluttig. Tra Nguyen, piano.
Sterling CDS-1085 2009 DDD 77:46
Reviewed by Mark Thomas . Also reviewed by Ilja Nieuwland, Dennis Slade & Peter Storm van Leeuwen.
After Sterling's release last year of three major works for violin and orchestra (Sterling CDS 1075 - review), very little of Raff's orchestral output remained unrecorded with the exception, of course, of his entire output of operas and choral works. Of the remaining non-vocal pieces, by far the most important was the Suite for Piano & Orchestra, a major five movement work, whilst a pair of opera overtures and a cantata prelude were the only remaining free-standing orchestral works of any size. This welcome second Raff CD from the Swedish label not only has all these works, but adds a couple of smaller premieres as well.
By far the most substantial work in the programme is the Suite for Piano & Orchestra, which takes half the CD's generous playing time. It's essentially a concerto in five movements which, in common with all of Raff's non-programmatic suites, attempts to fuse romantic harmony and melody with the baroque forms of a hundred years before. Although the wary listener might fear some sort of exercise in pastiche, Raff's pouring of "new wine into old bottles" here resulted in a work suffused with poetry, one of the most melodic scores from a master melodist. Unlike it's twin, the Suite for Violin & Orchestra, it is not primarily a showcase for virtuoso fireworks but more of a partnership of equals between the soloist and orchestra. It's neglect is shameful, for it is one of Raff's masterworks, arguably a superior work to the Piano Concerto.
Having heard Tra Nguyen play this work in concert, I had no doubt that its technical demands were well within her ability, but the extent to which her interpretation has matured in the year between concert and recording came as a welcome surprise. She clearly loves the work and begins its virtuosic Introduktion & Fugue first movement with that subtle mix of authority and tenderness which, it transpires, permeates her view of the whole work. The fugue itself sees her in forceful mood, completely in command of its fearsome Lisztian demands. The second movement Minuet has a split personality. Built from a martial call to arms, a beautifully introspective melody and a winning barcarole-like theme, in the wrong hands it could easily be musically incoherent. Nguyen and conductor Roland Kluttig display a firm grasp of the piece's architecture here, choosing tempi which gently push the argument forward, making each element's return a pleasure. Nguyen's way with the second theme is especially appealing, emphasising a slight hesitancy which greatly enhances its appeal.
The third movement is a skipping Gavotte & Musette, built on a attractively jaunty melody introduced by piano and then flute. It is taken at a dancing, sprightly pace and has all the makings of a "pops" favourite such as Litolff's Scherzo once was. Here, and in the piece's contrasting trio, Nguyen delivers cascades of notes with pin-point accuracy but one never feels that this is virtuosity for its own sake. Her delicacy in the tutti section from 4:20 onwards is a delight. The Cavatine which follows features one of those tender bitter-sweet Raff melodies which captivate the very first time you hear them. Here orchestra and soloist combine to deliver poetic tenderness which is a joy to listen to, whilst at the same time, in classic Raff style, not taking too long over it. After the opening tutti, Nguyen rushes enthusiastically into the Finale and this joi de vivre sets the tone for what follows. There is plenty of fire here, the momentum providing Nguyen with yet another opportunity to demonstrate her technical prowess, which she manages to do without ever being strident. Her playing in the cadenza is as captivating as one hoped it would be.
All in all this is a triumph for Nguyen whose playing, by turns delicate and dynamic but always supremely in command, is a joy from beginning to end. Throughout, she invests moments of repose and introspection with a poetic sensitivity which is in telling contrast to the authority and drive with which she attacks the fierier sections of the score. That I have hardly mentioned Roland Kluttig and his orchestra is no criticism. Their contribution is equally impressive, matching their soloist in commitment and expertise, delivering a taut, well detailed accompaniment and exciting and well judged tutti. Only the occasional thinness of the violins betrays the comparatively small size of this impressive Swedish provincial orchestra. Kluttig's tempi and his dynamic flexibility are exemplary. It is gratifying that one of Raff's most ingenious and winning scores has achieved such a satisfying recording debut.
Kluttig and the Umeå orchestra come into their own for the second half of the disk, which comprises five purely orchestral works, all of which were composed as part of larger vocal scores. The first of them, the sparkling overture to the comic opera Die Eifersüchtigen, lasts just over eight minutes. There's plenty of showcase opportunities for the principal woodwinds in the witty orchestration and the strings, not seeming at all exposed now, articulate Kluttig's carefully shaped phrasing well. An even faster pace might have been adopted to good effect but this remains an attractive performance of a very likeable piece. After the last free-standing orchestral work which Raff wrote, we have the first, the overture to his opera König Alfred. At almost fifteen minutes long, this is a weighty work and Kluttig takes the introductory patriotic hymn broadly too, letting us savour another grand tune from Raff. The overture faithfully charts the course of the opera, so we also have effective battle music and a very perky march (too perky actually, unfortunately it's not one of its creator's best ideas). These three elements undergo several skillful combinations in the second half of the work and Kluttig paces all this very well, maintaining interest through to the final triumphant peroration of the hymn. The orchestra play their heart out, once again belying their modest numbers. It's far from mature Raff, but it gets a fine performance.
The next two pieces come from another early work, the "Fairy Tale Epic" Dornröschen. The Prelude to this Sleeping Beauty cantata is a gentle, contemplative work, quite lightly scored for the most part, for which Kluttig again judges the tempo impeccably, letting the Lisztian climax emerge very effectively. It's a gorgeous piece which wears its eight minutes lightly. Any Raff lover will be delighted to make its acquaintance. The second number from Dornröschen is a short intermezzo depicting a Thorn Hedge, Die Dornhecke. This fugal scherzo is again well, indeed furiously, played but it somehow just fails to take off, maybe because we hear it out of musical context. The final short piece on the CD is one for those with a sweet tooth. It's the delicate Prelude to Act III of the opera Samson. The melody is delicious; the mood set by the prominent use of the solo violin makes it very reminiscent of the contemporary Konzertstuck La fée d'amour. Kluttig's low-key approach here pays dividends but special mention must be made of the orchestra's leader, Per Öman, for such melifluous solos in both this Prelude and at the end of that to Dornröschen.
The recording itself, produced by Sterling stalwart Anders Wiklund, is warm, has good depth and has avoided the over-reverberant acoustic which can be a feature of recordings made in the Umeå hall. The insert notes, by Raff doyen Dr Avrohom Leichtling, are amongst the most comprehensive and informative I have ever come across, combining readability with insightful analysis.
This disk marks a milestone: with its publication all of Raff's orchestral music has now been recorded. Whilst it is undoubtedly good news to have the purely orchestral works in such generally persuasive performances, there can be no doubt that the star of this particular show is the glorious Suite, which has been so lucky to have such intelligent, skilled and sensitive interpreters as Tra Nguyen and Roland Kluttig for its recording debut.
Put simply: a must buy.
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