AK Coburg DR 0009
AK Coburg DR 0009

CD Reviews: Pianos Suites volume IV

Piano Suite in D minor op.91, Transcription of J.S. Bach's Suites No.3 in C major and No.6 in D major for solo cello WoO.30 nos.3 & 6
Alexander Zolotarev, piano
AK Coburg DR 0009 2004 DDD 79:26

This is the final volume of Zolotarev's generally impressive survey of Raff's seven suites for piano and the transcriptions for piano of JS Bach's unaccompanied cello suites. With commendable dispatch, AK Coburg have issued these four well-filled CDs in a little over eight months, and through them we have benefited from the recording premieres of five of the Bach arrangements and six of Raff's own suites. The only Raff suite which has been recorded before is the one presented on this well-filled CD - the fourth in the series, the epic D minor; already recorded twice on CD and at least once on LP.

Whilst all his performances on the three previous CDs were of a high standard, Zolotarev was at his most convincing in the smaller scale Raff suites and in the Bach arrangements, where his unflamboyant virtuosity and reticent style was perfectly matched with their baroque ambiance. On the face of it, the D minor, grandest of all the suites, would be far too romantic and flashily virtuosic for him. The first few bars of the opening Fantasia e Fuga dispel those fears. We are spared Carnevali's plodding tempo in his recent effort [review], and instead Zolotarev lets us revel in Raff's imaginative rhapsodic musings, without once looking at our watch. He shaves a full two minutes off Carnevali's time and the pace is admirably suited to the music. We have plenty of time to appreciate Raff's cunning variation of mood, from mania to whimsy, without any loss of momentum. The transition to the fugue is so beautifully seamless that there is never any doubt that the two halves of the movement make a greater whole. Very satisfying.

The theme of the Giga con Variazioni second movement is given a suitably baroque treatment, but the variations which follow are romantic to their core - what a fine performance this is. The darting initial variations, with their cascading notes are especially effective, but Zolotarev's high-romantic interpretation makes it clear why this movement was so highly prized in Raff's lifetime.

Listen to an audio extract This excerpt is the beginning of the opening Fantasia - Zolotarev in rhapsodic mood [2:18]

In Ruiz's hands, the Cavatina slow movement is lovely, but lightweight. Zolotarev joins Carnevali in taking a serious approach to the piece and it is none the worse for that, though perhaps a tad less portentousness would have been even better. One does rather feel as if the dramatic point is being rammed home. In the Marcia finale, Carnevali's steadier tempo is again the closest comparison. Both Estrin and Ruiz are substantially faster. Where the effect in the Italian's hands is just a plodding march, Zolotarev's more flexible articulation and dynamics result in a kaleidoscope of textures which recall the first two movements most effectively. Added to which, for once Zolotarev puts his virtuosity on show as the movement thunders on to its close. Not perhaps as breathtaking a finish as Ruiz manages, but a musically satisfying one which brings to mind Mussorgsky's "Great Gate at Kiev" - a fitting end to this magnificent work.

The two cello suite transcriptions which make up the other half of this disk are hardly lightweight trifles and Raff's contribution to their successful transfer to the piano should not be underestimated. It is easy to do so, because his filling out of implied harmonies and subtle addition of a second part is so skillfully done that, rather than sounding like pastiches or romantic impressions of the baroque, they could be mistaken for Bach originals for the most part. Only rarely does Raff the romantic put in an obvious appearance, and hardly at all in either of these suites. The Suite No.6's Allemande is perhaps the only one of the twelve movements which one might mistake for a work written in 1868.

Listen to an audio extract This example is the Courante, the third movement of Raff's piano arrangement of JS Bach's Cello Suite No.3 in C major [2:21]

As with the previous four suites, Zolotarev is in his element here, matching Raff's subtlety with his own. Sampling the Suite No.3's effervescent Courante and the stately Sarabande which follows, yields a picture of Zolotarev's virtuosity, flexibility and thoughtfulness. The story is the same throughout these two works. Raff's arrangements and Zolotarev's performance of them are about as far removed from Stokowskian excess as one could imagine.

The sound quality of the CD matches the high standard of the previous disks in this series and the insert notes, once again by Messrs. Krueck and Tosta, are both intelligent and informative. A fine conclusion to this ground breaking series and, in the case of the Piano Suite op.91, a worthy replacement for Estrin as the recommended recording.

Mark Thomas

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