Piano Concerto Op.185, Ode au Printemps Op.76, Caprice on Themes from König Alfred Op.65 No.2
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kerry Stratton. Tra Nguyen, piano.
Grand Piano GP771 2017 66:25
A new recording of the two orchestral works on this CD has been sorely needed for some time. Jean-François Antonioli's disc coupling them with a Busoni Konzertstück (Claves 50-8806) has served for many years (it dates back to 1988) but, although his interpretations are never less than adequate, the orchestral contribution is undistinguished and overall the performances are unsatisfying. Unfortunately Michael Ponti's recordings of the works serve only to showcase his inappropriate high-speed gymnastics. The music needs a pianist who combines the imagination and insight needed to realise the poetry and drama in Raff's scores with the technique required to cope with the considerable demands he makes on the soloist. So it is especially pleasing that the pianist in this new recording is Tra Nguyen, whose eight previous CDs featuring Raff's music have amply demonstrated that she has his idiom in her soul. Add to the mix the renowned Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and Canadian conductor Kerry Stratton, well known for his warm and vibrant interpretations of the romantic repertoire, and this new recording has the potential to be a ground breaking release.
And so it proves to be. The sonorously unhurried opening of Ode au Printemps sets the tone. The orchestral sound is richly sensuous and over it floats Nguyen's limpid piano, beautifully matched by a solo cello in a short duet. The effect, helped by the sensitive sound balance, is quite magical. After five minutes the pace quickens, and Nguyen launches into playing of real bravura, poetic and fiery in equal measure. She is matched by a finely detailed and warm orchestral sound, with the brass satisfyingly punchy in the fanfares announcing the arrival of spring. Even in the slower, purely orchestral section the interest never flags as Stratton carefully allows the inner voices to come through to great effect. Although the pace is never lethargic, soloist and conductor give the music space to breath, resisting the temptation to accelerate the closing peroration too much, for example, resulting in an ecstatic but never frenetic close to the work. It's an utterly persuasive opening to the disc, one which highlights Nguyen's artistry, the unity of vision she shared with Stratton and the fine playing of the Prague orchestra.
The same approach is immediately evident in the Piano Concerto, the opening Allegro being taken at a moderate pace, allowing the music to speak for itself. For much of the first movement the atmosphere alternates between grandeur and rhapsody, with the tempo, and the tension, gradually increasing as the movement progresses. Although the overall duration is almost the same as Antonioli's reading, this is a much richer and more satisfying experience. Throughout it all Nguyen's emotional range is stunning: meltingly lyrical one moment, arrogantly strutting the next, but always serving the music and eschewing Ponti's empty fireworks.
The emotional core of the work is the slow movement, an absolute gem. Nguyen is all delicacy here, her line floating above the rhapsodising orchestra, which plays with great finesse. When it arrives, the noble orchestral climax at the heart of the piece is a truly cathartic release, followed by the balm of Nguyen's gentleness as the music subsides.
The martial finale is at last the place for showmanship, and Nguyen doesn't disappoint. She treats us to a tempestuous reading, awash with pianistic drama, matched by Stratton playing up the orchestral tutti for all they're worth. Once again, the brass' contribution is outstanding, but it's especially good to hear so much care being taken to ensure that the details of Raff's fine orchestration aren't lost in the wash of sound. Despite the drama throughout the movement and the excitement of its close, this isn't a driven, hyped interpretation; its propulsive momentum comes naturally from within the score, it isn't imposed on it.
The final work on the disc is for solo piano, the Caprice on themes from Raff's first opera König Alfred, and it's a world premiere recording. It's an expansive piece lasting 15½ minutes, based primarily on two contrasting themes, a patriotic song and a march, which are woven together and developed. By way of lyrical contrast, Raff also mixes in two further episodes from the opera. Though not quite on a par with the two orchestral works, it's no mere pot pourri, and Nguyen plays it for all it's worth, bringing to it all the qualities she so extensively demonstrated in her series of six CDs of Raff's solo piano music. The Caprice is a very welcome bonus both to that series and to this disc, but there's no doubt that the stars of this show are the Concerto and Ode.
This is without doubt one of the most important and persuasive Raff recordings to have been released in recent years. Everything about it impresses: Tra Nguyen's command of technique and sympathy with Raff's idiom has never been more convincingly on display, and Kerry Stratton and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra provide not only robust and sympathetic support, but bring out every detail of Raff's superb orchestration. Full credit must also go to the producer in Prague, Milan Puklicı, for the impeccable balance and orchestral detail in the recordings. I must, however, close this review with an apology: I do appreciate that a review of such consistent praise runs the risk of boring the reader, but the antidote is a very pleasant one - buy the CD and you'll find yourself sympathising with my predicament!
Tra Nguyen talks about this recording: