AK Coburg DR 0006
AK Coburg DR 0006

CD Reviews: Pianos Suites volume I

Piano Suite in C major op.71, Piano Suite in G minor op.162, Transcription of J.S. Bach's Suite No.1 in G major for solo cello WoO.30 no.1

Alexander Zolotarev, piano
AKCoburg DR 0006 2004 DDD 69:17

How strange that it should have taken so long for Raff's piano suites to be recorded. More than half of his output was for the piano. These seven suites are seminal works, but only one (the D minor op.91) has been recorded before. This new CD from American boutique label AK Coburg is doubly welcome, therefore. Firstly, it marks the recording premiere of two of the other suites. Secondly, it is the first of a set of four CDs which promises not only all seven suites but also Raff's arrangements for piano of the six solo cello suites of J.S. Bach. Riches indeed.

AK Coburg has quietly built up a reputation amongst the cognoscenti for producing CDs in which insightful and virtuoso performances of out of the way music are satisfyingly recorded, and documented with scholarly insert notes. This issue is no exception. The sound is warm and intimate without being claustrophobic and the insert notes by Raff mavens Alan Krueck and Volker Tosta are detailed and informative without being dryly academic. Most important, though, is the playing of Alexander Zolotarev, whose unheroic virtuosity and flowing lyricism give these performances a natural excitement and glowing tenderness so appropriate to the works themselves.

Raff, it was said, "poured new wine into old bottles" and in his piano suites the "new wine" of romanticism is served from the "old bottles" of the baroque preludes, fugues and dance movements of 150 years earlier. Far from being pastiches though, each movement is a true union of the old and the new in which Raff infuses the old forms with romantic harmonies and bitter-sweet melodies. To highlight his unique contribution to the history of the suite, a sensitive piece of programming places his piano arrangement of Bach's unaccompanied Cello Suite No.1 first on the disk.

This sees Raff at his most subdued. He pays homage to Bach by retaining the original cello line almost unchanged within a subtly enhanced polyphony, except in the lovely Prelude where the original serves as accompaniment to a memorably simple tune by Raff. Virtuoso playing would be out of place here and Zolotarev is content to let skillful understatement work its magic, reprising his highly praised performance on an earlier CD ( Ars FCD 368 388 - review). The prelude itself is played without a trace of Gounodesque sentimentality, to great effect.

Listen to an audio extract This excerpt, the start of the Toccatina from the C major Suite, illustrates the unforced virtuosity of Zolotarev's playing [0:53]

The five movement C major Suite pre-dates the Bach arrangement by nine years and it's all over in just over 18 minutes. Again, restraint is the order of the day as Zolotarev muses through the Preludio which is more baroque than romantic. The Polka is a more modern affair with a delicious (and difficult) rhythmic twist, typically Raffian in its melodic material. The quicksilver Toccatina is stylishly dashed off by Zolotarev, who then rightly lingers over the luscious, reflective Romanza which follows. In the concluding Fuga, Raff returns decisively to his baroque model to which Zolotarev adds a modest amount of romantic expression.

Listen to an audio extract This example is from about a minute into the opening movement of the G minor Suite - the Elegy in Sonata Form [2:10]

At almost 40 minutes long, the G minor Piano Suite is a major work and a very different prospect. It is the only one of the seven suites without any baroque titles, and is a thoroughly romantic and rather enigmatic conception. The opening movement, Elegy in Sonata Form, confounds the expectations of its title by being a broadly conceived Allegro - vintage Raff. The magnificent slow movement comprises a folksong theme and ten inventive variations, which Zolotarev plays with great panache. A Ländler comes next, but it is a wittily supple Allegretto rather than a Brucknerian country dance. Although attractive enough, the finale, Fairy Tale, is perhaps not quite on the same level as the preceding movements, but Zolotarev puts across the best case for it, and copes with its prodigious demands effortlessly.

Overall, then, an exemplary start to the promised cycle. In the Bach arrangement and the C major Suite, Zolotarev generally lets the music speak for itself. Appropriately, he injects more of his own personality into the very romantic G minor Suite. Throughout though, his technique is flawless and his playing is finely recorded in a well balanced acoustic with good dynamic range. The booklet is a model of its kind, as one would expect from its authors.

AK Coburg anticipate that we won't have to wait long for the next CD in the series. It can't be too soon for me!

Mark Thomas

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