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Sterling CDS-1085
Sterling CDS-1085

CD Reviews: Suite for Piano & Orchestra etc.

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 Ilja Nieuwland Also reviewd by Mark Thomas, Dennis Slade & Peter Storm van Leeuwen.

Of Raff’s nine concertante works, few have remained so well-hidden from the public ear as his Suite for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 200. Peter Aronsky recorded the work some years ago with the Basel Radio Orchestra under Frank Cramer, but that recording never experienced a commercial release, although it enjoyed some circulation among aficionados. And those who had heard it, knew what a pity it was that the work remained hidden, because this is Raff at his prime. Written in 1875, it shows the composer at the height of his creative ability. It can be considered a twin to the Suite for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 180 (released last year by the same label), in its combination of the Baroque suite and the romantic concertante forms.

And fortunately, this new release does full justice to this magnificent work. Tra Nguyen’s recording with the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera eclipses the older rendering in virtually every respect, albeit without taking great distance from Aronsky’s overall approach to the work. This is not a piece made up of excessive pianistic pyrotechnics; God, rather, is in the details, and the effortlessness with which ms. Nguyen takes these on is nothing short of impressive. Luckily for her (and us) the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera belies its provincial status under the baton of Roland Kluttig. The conductor maintains a brisk pace throughout the work, without becoming breathless. The result is a tensely restrained version which leaves hardly anything to be desired and shows the piece in all its subtle glory.

The rest of this disc is made up of operatic overtures and intermezzi, all of which receive their premiere commercial release here. But although these pieces are good to have, they are very much ‘fillers’, and after the exaltation of the suite there is a slight (inevitable?) sense of letdown. First because these pieces don’t quite match their predecessor in invention; with one exception all precede the suite by around twenty years and show a clearly less mature and confident composer. But also because the orchestra’s playing appears to be somewhat less committed, and tempi are generally more lax than in the suite.

Sterling’s previous Raff release was centered around concertante works for violin and orchestra; one cannot help but feel that such an approach would have led to more balanced collection in this case as well. Although both Raff’s Piano Concerto and the Ode to Spring have received more recordings, we can be sure that Tra Nguyen would have handled those works with the same audacity. The overall impression the disc leaves is, for want of a better word, slightly lop-sided, entirely dominated as it is by the suite.

The recording is clear and spacious without being too reverberant, although the engineers might have put the piano a bit further backward. Dr. Avrohom Leichtling’s liner notes are nothing if not encyclopedic, and the average reader will find few questions unanswered. Most of his text centers on Raff’s operatic output, but it is difficult to get a real feel for that on the basis of just the incidental music we hear here.

The conclusion is a simple one: any Raff enthusiast worth his salt will have no choice but to buy this CD, and he could not have wished for a better rendition of the Suite for Piano and Orchestra. That is its main attraction, and one that leaves one curious what Ms. Nguyen would make of Raff’s other works for piano and orchestra.

Ilja Nieuwland
December 2009

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