AK Coburg DR 0007
AK Coburg DR 0007

CD Reviews: Pianos Suites volume II

Piano Suite in G major op.163, Piano Suite in B flat major op.204, Transcription of J.S. Bach's Suite No.2 in D minor for solo cello WoO.30 no.2

Alexander Zolotarev, piano
AK Coburg DR 0007 2004 DDD 77:10

With commendable promptness, barely a month after announcing the first volume in their series surveying Raff's piano suites, AK Coburg have released a second disk. This issue follows the pattern established by its predecessor: two of Raff's own suites (in this case the sixth and seventh in the series) preceded by one of his piano arrangements of J.S. Bach's solo Cello Suites (this time the D minor). Alexander Zolotarev is again the pianist here, and his unspectacular virtuosity is well suited to the task of introducing us to these works, of which only one movement has ever been recorded before.

Raff's piano arrangements of the Bach Cello Suites were not intended as virtuoso pieces. Rather, they were straight transcriptions intended to allow performance in the home or salon, at a time when much of the Leipzig master's music awaited rediscovery. Raff filled them out where necessary with discrete counter melodies or subtle polyphonic enhancements, but the six movements of the D minor Suite will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the originals. That is just as it should be - Zolotarev's subtle technique allows us to hear Raff's contribution without ever losing sight of Bach's glorious cello line.

Listen to an audio extractThis excerpt, alternating fast and slow sections from the G major Suite's Allemande second movement, gives a good idea of Zolotarev's sensitive style [1:57]

After the romantic expansiveness of its two predecessors, the sixth of Raff's seven piano suites saw a return to the baroque model. Not only do four of the op.163 suite's six movements boast baroque titles, but most of them have passages in them close enough in feel to their baroque models as to be almost pastiches. A glittering, spiky and very Bachian Praeludium is succeeded by a rather foursquare and fast Allemande, in which the contrasting slower material has a much more romantic feel. The Romanze which follows is a darkly contemplative piece, while the Menuett reminds one of Raff's lighter dances for the salon. The Rhapsodie is a beautiful and almost Wagnerian study which will be familiar to many Raff lovers. It was arranged by him for orchestra as the Abends Rhapsodie. This movement was removed from later editions of the suite, so we should be grateful to AK Coburg for including the original version here - it is a gem. Bach returns with the closing Gigue which, like the rest of this work, Zolotarev plays with an unflashy skill, emphasising the music's baroque antecedents whenever they rise to the surface. He is, perhaps, not quite so successful in relishing the romantic elements of the composition - a little less restraint here and there would be refreshing.

Listen to an audio extract This example is the opening of the Prelude, the first movement of the B flat major suite[1:59]

In the B flat major Suite, the last in the series, the romantic element is more in balance with the baroque. It begins with a captivating Prelude which contrasts an elegiac melody with an accompaniment of cascading figurations - sensitively played by Zolotarev. The short Sarabande is stately without being staid, but Zolotarev's playing of the relatively well known Rigaudon which follows seems pedestrian, especially when compared with the celebrated Arthur Loesser's romp through the piece in a historic recording. To be fair, Zolotarev's may be a more accurate reflection of what Raff intended, but it is nowhere near as exciting. Both it and the fast parts of the Menuet fourth movement have a distinct feel of the early 18th. century about them, although the slow melody of the latter's central section is a gently rocking theme which is typical of Raff the romantic. That era stays on for the Air, longest of the six movements, in which the composer employs a long drawn out melody to expressive effect. The concluding Tambourin is catchily rhythmic and it is dashed off to leave us with a smile at the end of the CD, without perhaps exploiting its full barnstorming potential.

Zolotarev is the antithesis of the flashy virtuoso, although virtuoso he undoubtedly is. Generally, his self-effacing style is entirely appropriate to the music but, after listening to the first two CDs in the series, one does wish that once in a while he could dispense with responsible sobriety and just let himself go when it is appropriate, the Rigaudon and Tambourin movements of op.204 being cases in point.

The quality of both the recording and the booklet are fully up to the standard of the previous issue and, despite those reservations about the consistent restraint in Zolotarev's interpretations, it would be churlish not to recommend this disk wholeheartedly.

Mark Thomas

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