Fantasie-Sonate op.168, Piano Sonata op.14 (2nd.
version) and Trois Morceaux op.2
Valentina Seferinova, piano
Cameo Classics CC9024CD 2007 DDD 61:50
Raff's most significant works for the piano have been available for some time on CD. The US boutique label AK Coburg have fine performances of the seven Piano Suites on four CDs, but were pipped to the post in offering the first all-piano CD by Gareth Vaughan's small Cahoots label which in 2002 issued a recording featuring the Bulgarian pianist Valentina Seferinova playing the Piano Sonata op.14, the Fantasie-Sonate op.168 and the delightful Trois Morceaux op.2.
Whilst Vaughan did his level best to ensure adequate retail distribution of Cahoots' CD, it was always primarily a mail-order offering, so it's welcome news that the larger UK Cameo Classics label has taken over the rights to this important recording and has reissued it in new packaging. Although the recordings have been digitally remastered, producing a slightly warmer and more reverberant ambience, Cameo have retained Matthias Wiegandt's impeccable insert notes. The only important difference between the two CDs is that Cameo have changed the playing order. The Piano Sonata remains the final piece but now the Trois Morceaux begin the programme, followed by the powerfully Lisztian one movement Fantasie-Sonate. Cameo's David Kent-Watson's says that "I found the Trois Morceaux such charming pieces, and possibly the most appealing to those approaching Raff for the first time, as was my experience - a bit like a popular Overture preparing us for more substantial fare as at a concert. I believe listening to a CD should equate in some way to listening to a concert - it is after all really a substitute for the real thing". It's a valid argument, although one could equally well argue that the previous order worked well as a programme because the Morceaux acted as palate cleansers when placed between the two dramatic heavy-duty sonatas. That said, there is no reason to do other than give this impressive reissue a hearty and grateful welcome.
Here's my original 2002 review of the Cahoots issue, which remains entirely appropriate to the performances in their new Cameo incarnation. The new CD is just as recommendable as its predecessor.
It is surprising that the Raff revival on disc has until now largely ignored his piano music, remembering that more than half his output was for the instrument. Now, however, we have a CD devoted to some of his most important piano works and a welcome arrival it is. New British label Cahoots and UK-based Bulgarian pianist Valentina Seferinova have chosen a programme which steers away from Raff's salon music and instead concentrates on his more "serious" side with the Fantasie-Sonate op.168 and the late second version of the Piano Sonata op.14. In rather more relaxed vein are the Trois Morceaux op.2 - another set whose early opus number belies the fact that they were written in 1876.
The fantasy side of op.168 is well brought out by Seferinova. She emphasises the improvisatory feel of the piece's start, presenting the opening Allegro patetico section almost as a series of musings on the motto theme which dominates the whole work. Her accuracy is ably demonstrated by the frantic figurations in which Raff indulges sporadically. The delicacy of the central Largo is a joy - there is something affectingly childlike in the simplicity of her treatment of these lovely variations, before the stormy concluding Allegro molto is ushered in by the last of them (a nice touch this by Raff). Perhaps Seferinova could have risked a more turbulent and Lisztian approach to this final section - one suspects that one should have been left with the impression of a "bigger" work than comes across here. Overall, though, this is an intelligent and poetic performance which grows on you with repeated listening. Her handling of the tempi in particular show what a good feel she has for the architecture of the whole three-section structure.
Sandwiched between the two sonatas are the Trois Morceaux. Lasting just over 12 minutes, they are not as portentous as the sonatas, but by no means mere salon music. The opening Elégie is a surprisingly lively and rather enigmatic piece which seems as if it is telling a story, unrevealed to us by Raff. Seferinova plays it beautifully, investing it with a tenderness and, at the last, a tangible sense of faint regret. The central Romance features one of those immediately attractive Raffian melodies which linger stubbornly in the memory. It has an engaging hesitancy which she carries over into the contrasting cantabile middle section so that it suffuses the whole piece. A delight. Once again, playing of immense charm and delicacy. The concluding Valse also begins uncertainly, but soon gets into its stride and here one is reminded of the many such works to which Raff turned his hand so effectively. There is more to it than there seems at first but even so Seferinova has it skip away seemingly without effort.
Coming after the rather skittish Valse, the austerity of the rewritten Piano Sonata is something of a shock. It is a rather more sombre and serious work than one is used to from the master and one wonders what would have followed had he lived. Its mood is set at the very beginning where the Allegro's principal theme is baldly stated and then elaborated in an almost baroque fashion. This seriousness is well conveyed by Seferinova and so her relaxing into the lyrical second subject is especially welcome. She makes light of the work's difficulties and the episodic sombreness and sometimes dense counterpoint are nicely contrasted with the more lyrical passages and intermittent silvery cascade of notes. A very satisfying interpretation of an atypical Raff movement.
The following Allegro molto is a relative disappointment. It would have benefited from an more hard driven approach to the fast outer sections and the rather spooky ending is somehow flat and doesn't leave one breathless with relief that the hectic ride is over. The movement's lyrical trio is a finely judged contrast, however.
In the Larghetto third movement, Seferinova shows that she understands that Raff slow movements aren't that slow. Although she revels in the long drawn out opening melody, she isn't afraid of piling on the drama in the central section and makes this (for Raff) uncharacteristically reserved slow movement a piece of stature and a worthy counterweight to the portentous opening Allegro.
The Allegro finale sees Raff in more familiar celebratory and open-hearted vein. A procession of generally joyful motifs are melded into successive passages full of joie de vivre. Raff cannot resist ample contrapuntal episodes and, of course, a fugue makes its expected appearance but there is nothing dry about it. Seferinova encompasses all this with an appropriate lightness of touch and brings this unusual work to a bright and emphatic end.
The recording itself can sound muddy at times, but the piano is well forward and a little judicious control twiddling will set matters straight. Matthias Wiegandt's liner notes are as impressive as we have come to expect from him and are especially helpful in discussing the Piano Sonata.
In sum, Valentina Seferinova demonstrates that she has Raff's measure. If she sometimes seems reluctant to pull out every last dramatic stop, she is undeniably impressive in the more lyrical passages and it is to be hoped that this issue is a success for Cahoots so that we can hear more Raff from her in the future.
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