CD reviews
Suite for Piano & Orchestra
Reviews by:
Mark Thomas
Ilja Nieuwland

Dennis Slade
Peter Storm van Leeuwen





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

I don’t have any hesitation in giving my opinion straight away. This Sterling release of Raff’s gorgeous Suite für das Pianoforte mit Begleitung des Orchesters (in E flat Major) op.200, is nothing but a real treat for all lovers of music of the romantic era.

Raff’s curiosity and interest in the baroque era has lead to some surprising compositions. We only have to think of his various suites for orchestra, violin and orchestra, for solo piano and the six suites for solo cello by Bach (BWV 1007-1012), arranged for solo piano. In these suites we find several (usually dance) movements of varying character, just as in the baroque period. Raff also used it in his op.200, a piece for piano and orchestra lasting over 38 minutes, consisting of five movements, each movement creating an unique atmosphere of its own. And Raff is a genius in combining the typical baroque elements with the features of the romantic style.

The first movement, Introduction und Fuge, impresses me most. The main theme is very well worked out, and the piano writing proves that Raff had the potential to be a great keyboard player himself. Several passages are nothing less than Raffian melodies with Lisztian virtuosity. It sparkles and keeps the attention of the listener continuously fixed, without giving the impression that the music was only meant to be just a showpiece. There is also a dazzling passage after 6:35 minutes which even reminds me of Beethoven in some of his piano sonatas.

Listen to an audio extract This example shows some of the pianistic acrobatics in the first movement [1:10]

After the brilliant opening movement the Menuett starts with a typical and simple theme. But after half a minute it’s transformed into a lovely melody. One of Raff’s specialties is the subtle usage of the wind instruments, and we immediately recognize it after two minutes. It’s most interesting to listen carefully how Raff develops the original theme in this very charming movement.

The most fun-filled, although even more simple, theme is introduced in the Gavotte und Musette. But it is so appealing that it keeps in your head for a long time. Listen to it, whistle the tune, and everyone in your direct environment will whistle it too. Imagine happy people, with folk dancing during a feast, in a small German village, some 125 years ago. The melody is a brilliant find, and utterly catchy.

The fourth movement is a Cavatine. We all know the other famous Cavatina, which is in fact a moving tune. In this suite the Cavatine is definitely a touching melody: emotional, lyrical, having depth. In short, a lovely and moving piece of music. If the former movement makes you happy, this movement might put you into a melancholic mood.

Listen to an audio extract This example is the start of the Cavatine [1:31]

But not for long, because the Finale brings joy again. It’s a sparkling piece of music, with gusts of Mendelssohnian piano writing, however obviously without any baroque elements.

I cannot say that the Suite is some kind of a piano concerto. Usually a romantic piano concerto consists of fast-slow-fast movements (sometimes including a fourth scherzo movement), Raff’s Suite lacks those characteristics (although the Cavatine is a slow movement). But ask the question: which work do you love most, Raff’s Piano Concerto or Suite for Piano & Orchestra? I would say his Concerto is a gorgeous work, like other concertos from the era. His Suite gives more surprises and is, for me at least, slightly preferable. It’s a unique work, giving you a wonderful listening experience.

The Suite is professionally and enthusiastically played by the Swedish orchestra, which surely does’t sound like a small local orchestra. On the contrary. But hats off to the impressively capable Tra Nguyen. Her playing is spectacular and very convincing.

I’m very pleased that the second half of the disc is filled with other, previously unreleased works by Raff. Both overtures are pleasant works, but not that impressive. I wonder whether König Alfred is inspired by Wagner? Raff has composed much more interesting works, like the other orchestral music which ends the CD. These are very subtle, lyrical and almost dreamy pieces extracted from Dornröschen and Samson.

Compliments to Dr. Avrohom Leichtling. His very informative booklet notes are simply outstanding. In summary, this mouthwatering CD is warmly recommended, and certainly not only for Raff enthusiasts, but for every enthusiast. Sterling: Chapeau!

Peter Storm van Leeuwen
December 2009

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