"Raff Piano Works vol.1" - Fantaisie WoO.15A, Frühlingsboten op.55 & Drei Klavier-soli op.74.
Tra Nguyen, piano
Grand Piano GP602 2012 DDD 76:47
The name of the British-Vietnamese piano virtuoso Tra Nguyen should by now be well known to enthusiasts of Raff's music. She has not only played on two recent ground-breaking CDs of works for piano and orchestra for the Sterling label (CDS-1085 - reviews and CDS 1089 - review) but also demonstrates her evangelical belief in the quality of Raff's compositions by frequently programming them in her recitals. This commitment and enthusiasm for Raff's music, paired with her fine technique and the sensitivity and intelligence of her interpretations has made her an ideal ambassador.
The news that she had returned to the recording studio to lay down three CDs of Raff's solo piano compositions was met with enthusiasm by Raff afficionados but also some trepidation that possibly the skills which she showed in the orchestral works would not be as effective when exposed to the solo spotlight. The first fruit of those recording sessions has now been released on Naxos' new full price label Grand Piano. It's a testament to Nguyen's artistry that not only did the industry giant select it to be one of the CDs launching their premium label but it has, I understand, sold consistently well since its launch. The message is reassuringly clear: Nguyen's skill as a Raff interpreter has triumphantly transferred to solo performance.
The programme of this first CD showcases music from the early 1850s, written at a time when Raff was working as Liszt's amanuensis and living in his household in Weimar. The earliest work (which is the final track on the recording) is the disarming Fantaisie WoO.15a, a work which was only discovered in 2010. It is thought to date from 1850, the very beginning of Raff's time in Weimar, and still bears the unmistakable signs of the influence of both his mentor Liszt and, to a lessor degree, Chopin. Essentially monothematic, interest is maintained over its 12 minute length by the increasingly complex decorations which Raff weaves around his attractive melody until it is all but submerged by them. Nguyen emphasises the work's opening wistful character and carefully grades the passages which follow so that this is never entirely lost, despite the surface changes of mood driven by the ever more excitable ornamentation. It's altogether a subtle and satisfying interpretation which, one suspects, makes rather more of the work than it might deserve.
The remaining two works on this delightful CD both date from 1852 and they demonstrate not only that Raff had found his own characteristic voice in the two years which separate them from the Fantaisie, but also the breadth and depth of the compositional craft which he had acquired. Frühlingsboten (Harbingers of Spring) op.55 consists of twelve miniatures (the whole set lasts barely 35 minutes) which first drew the critics' attention to Raff. The subtlety which Nguyen demonstrates in the Fantaisie is employed here to an even greater degree. She gently coaxes nuanced gradations of mood between each piece, respecting the delicacy of Raff's inspiration with playing of finesse and poetic intensity; she emphasises the similarities which give the set its coherence whilst all the time giving each of the pieces an individual identity. Nguyen's ear for the over-arching logic of the set makes, for example, the potentially jarring contrast of the squirming unease of No.4 Unruhe (Anxiety) following the religious solemnity of No.3 Gelübde (Vow) a natural, almost inevitable transition. There are many such pleasures to be had in this thoughtful interpretation; it is a performance to treasure.
The second set is the Drei Klavier-soli op.74 - its much later opus number reflecting a seven year wait for publication. The contrast with Frühlingsboten could hardly be greater. Here are three bravura concert works, confident and assured, showing none of the hesitant sensitivity of the op.55 set. Yet they are anything but empty and indeed the final and most substantial piece, an impressive set of variations called Metamorphosen (Metamorphoses), was hailed by his contemporaries as Raff's first master work. Here Nguyen demonstrates that she has all the technical prowess and interpretive skill to bring off these three tempestuous romantic scores with aplomb. Her story telling in the highly attractive Ballade, with its abrupt changes of mood from gentle lyricism to vaulting histrionics, is highly persuasive making the work a hugely enjoyable listen. The madcap outer sections of the frantic Scherzo which follows are a showcase for Nguyen's flawless technique as she dashes them off with an apparent nonchalance which hides the skill required. In contrast, her approach to the magnificent Metamorphosen is to let the work speak for itself as Raff patiently constructs his grand edifice. She is in no way self-effacing, but the piece has a strong character and she has the intelligence to let this communicate itself to the listener without introducing interpretive idiosyncrasies of her own.
All in all, Tra Nguyen couldn't have hoped for a more impressive debut as a solo recording artist and Raff enthusiasts couldn't have hoped for a more persuasive and enjoyable demonstration of the worth of his piano music. The recording, produced by Michael Ponder at Nimbus' famous Wyastone Hall venue, is impeccable with the piano ideally placed in a warm acoustic. The packaging for the new Grand Piano label is attractive and of a high standard. I can't really pass judgement myself on the booklet notes, but you can form your own view by visiting the Naxos website.
I couldn't recommend this release more highly and look forward eagerly to volume 2, due out very soon.
Tra Nguyen talks about Raff Piano Works vol.1:
All six CDs in this series are now also available in a box set:
More Raff on Tra Nguyen's YouTube Channel
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