"Raff Piano Works vol.2" - Fantasie-Sonate op.168, Variationen über ein Originalthema op.179 & Four piano pieces op196.
Tra Nguyen, piano
Grand Piano GP612 2012 DDD 63:07
The first of Grand Piano's trio of CDs featuring Raff's piano music [GP602 - review] met with very positive reviews and its great news that the label's parent Naxos have capitalised on its success by bringing forward the release of the second volume. Such was the quality of music, performance and recording in the first disc that Raff enthusiasts would no doubt have found the promised six months wait bearable, but sometimes the surprise of almost instant gratification is worth forgoing the pleasure of anticipation! In contrast with the first volume which featured works from the early 1850s, this new release presents us with pieces from the 1870s, the high point of Raff's career.
Tra Nguyen, the British-Vietnamese soloist on all the recordings in the series, now enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a pianist who is able to "get under the skin" of Raff's music and deliver nuanced performances which are are not only musically satisfying and technically adept but which also deliver the emotional charge often lacking in readings of non-repertoire music by less committed artists.
Any lingering worries about the high quality of Nguyen's interpretations on the first CD being a flash in the pan will be immediately dispelled by her performance of the first piece on this new disc: the magnificent Fantasie-Sonate. The mixture of heroism and lyricism, pensive thoughtfulness and stern resolve with which she invests the opening section of the work sets the tone for her deeply impressive reading. She never allows the more forceful passages to descend into mere Lisztian bombast whilst still investing them with all the drama one could wish for. Her gradual transformation of the delicate warmth of the central Largo variations into a subtly agitated texture in preparation for the final Allegro molto is a master class in intelligent control. The final section itself returns to the turbulent atmosphere of the opening but this time Nguyen illuminates its more relaxed passages with a light, almost playful atmosphere whilst never letting up on the propulsive momentum, driving it forward via an exciting Presto dash to end in a magisterial closing cadence. Nguyen's competition is Valentina Seferinova, whose 2002 recording is now available on Cameo Classics [CC9024CD - review]. It's a very creditable and persuasive rendition which has been a great ambassador for the work but the subtlety and dynamic variety of Nguyen's interpretation, coupled with the superior recording, now edges Seferinova into second place.
The remaining two works on this impressive CD are both recording premieres. At almost 27 minutes long, the Variations on an Original Theme is a big work. Indeed, it is Raff's longest single movement in any genre. It is also a perplexing piece because, whilst it's 20 variations (which with its opening, theme and finale are here generously split into 26 tracks) are a compendium of all that is attractive, emotional and inventive in Raff's piano writing, the work for the most part leaves the listener feeling unsettled. This is because Raff adopted what a contemporary critic described as "an almost impossible rhythm of five and seven quavers in the bar" relieving the pianist, and listener, only at the very end with the straightforward 2/4 of the finale. It is a masterstroke, but the 23 minutes which come before it are fraught with pitfalls for even the most competent soloist. Nguyen negotiates this minefield with aplomb, delivering a performance of this leviathan which is as convincing as it is accomplished. She doesn't try to sweeten the unnerving effect of Raff's rhythmic perversity, compounded as it is by these being progressive variations so the ear is never given the comfort of returning to anything resembling the original theme, itself an elusive thing. Nguyen delivers op.179's dazzling variety of melodies, textures, tempi and moods with a sureness of touch and mastery of vision which are the only reliable things in this most uneasy of works. When the firm ground of the dazzling finale arrives she quite rightly plays it dead straight, including Raff's almost-quote from the first of his mentor Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. This grand work is a fiendish tour-de-force for any pianist but it is difficult to imagine anyone delivering a more assured and persuasive performance. Bravo!
The four works which comprise the untitled op.196 set find Raff and his listeners on firmer ground. The first is Im Schilf (In the Reeds), an evocation of wind gently blowing over water. Here Nguyen's interpretation has more clarity and attack but is less impressionistic than Anne de Dadelsen's thirty year old LP recording and, as such, is probably nearer what Raff intended. In the delightful Berceuse which follows, a gentle rocking motif in the left hand gradually calms the right hand's mercurial melody in another exercise in scene paining which Nguyen presents with beguiling simplicity. The third in the set, a stormy Novellette, brings a complete change of mood. It's an insistently combative piece with rather four square material in both its outer sections and the solemn chorale of the centre passage, interrupted intermittently by fast passage work. Interpretively, Nguyen probably has less to do here than elsewhere but the Novellette, if maybe below the level of invention of the other three works, is safe in her hands. The final Impromptu is a real charmer, a lyrical and sometimes introspective piece which Nguyen moves nicely along, not falling into the trap of letting it stagnate.
These recordings fully live up to the promise of Tra Nguyen's first disc for Grand Piano and I can see little point in adding any more superlatives on those I've already employed in this review and the last. As before, the recording and packaging echo the high standard set by Nguyen's playing and the insert notes I again leave for the reader to form their own judgement on by visiting the Naxos website.
Tra Nguyen plays the Berceuse Op.196 no.2 from Raff Piano Works vol.2:
More Raff on Tra Nguyen's YouTube Channel
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