Grand Piano GP634

CD Reviews: Raff Piano Works vol.3

"Raff Piano Works vol.3" - Album Lyrique Op.17, Cinq Eglogues Op.105, Impromptu-Valse Op.94, Fantaisie-Polonaise.
Tra Nguyen, piano
Grand Piano GP634 2012 DDD 76:33

This review can afford to be rather shorter than those for the first two volumes in this series [GP602 - review and GP612 - review] because I won't need to take up space heaping on superlatives to describe Tra Nguyen's interpretation and technique. Not because they aren't merited, of course, but rather the reverse. Not only in the reviews on this web site, but wherever the two previous CDs have been discussed in print or online, Nguyen's performances have been met with consistent and richly deserved plaudits. So this time around I can simply report that her playing on the third and unfortunately final CD in her survey is every bit as perceptive, idiomatic and satisfying as it was on the two previous discs. She has the ability to convince the listener that one is hearing exactly what Raff intended.

As for the music, the pieces on this CD (all of which are recording premieres) find Raff for the most part in a relaxed, playful or reflective mood. The gravity of the previous disc's Metamorphosen or Fantasie-Sonata generally has no place here, although the closing Introduction & Fugue of the Album Lyrique approaches their stature.

Listen to an audio extract This extract is the end of the Album Lyrique's Nocturne No.2 [2:22]

The nine numbers of the Album Lyrique begin the programme, their 47 minutes mostly consisting of slow-to-moderately paced music in Raff's most attractive meditative vein, often tinged with wistful sadness. The first three works are Rêveries, and all have a pensive air about them, the first two sharing a heartfelt, expressive lyricism, whilst in the third a repeated "walking" motif is progressively darkened before it achieves a more upbeat close. The gentle Romance which follows returns to the mood of the opening Rêverie but is succeeded by an episodic Ballade which has distinctly Lisztian overtones. Next come two delicious Nocturnes, the first featuring a long drawn out melody of typically Raffian cast and the second a seductively slow barcarole. The final pair of pieces in the set are of quite different character, to the extent that I suspect them to have been written much nearer the 1870s publication date than the rest of the numbers, which date from 1849. The first is a glittering, fiery Scherzo, repeatedly interrupted by slower sections, and the second a grandly impressive Introduction and Fugue lasting nine minutes. The first seven numbers in this set share a sensitivity and a quiet passion which is matched by the subtlety and intensity of Nguyen's performances, but she has all the robustness and showmanship to meet the demands of the more outgoing final two works.

Listen to an audio extract This extract is the beginning of the first Eglogue from Cinq Eglogues [1:41]

The Cinq Eglogues are, as the back of the CD says, poetic gems. Each exhibits a delicacy and exquisite charm, yet retains its own character. Raff's gift for melody and colour has never had a better showcase than this short set of barely 18 minutes duration. The Eglogue No.1 must rank as one of the most intimately beautiful works written by him in any genre, and Nguyen's finesse here serves it perfectly. The set's first four pieces are again generally slowly paced, although the second has an agitated central section, the contrast of which with the generally ruminative music which surrounds it is very effectively handled by Nguyen. She clearly relishes the joyously upbeat Presto giojoso which closes the set, seemingly unfazed by its technical difficulties, making it a very satisfying conclusion to this wonderful set of pieces.

Listen to an audio extract This extract is from the middle of the Impromptu-Valse [1:41]

If Raff found charm difficult to master in person, he clearly had no problem with it in his music and the little Impromptu-Valse oozes it from every bar. It is a delightful confection, combining a bubbling fast waltz with an ingratiatingly hesitant slow one. Nguyen's lightness of touch is a joy, especially as the music reaches its breathless close. The forceful opening of the Fantaisie-Polonaise couldn't be more contrasting. Here, as a virtuosic finale to the disc, Nguyen gives us Raff in bravura mode. She alters her approach accordingly, revelling in each grand gesture whilst still not overplaying the music; this is Raff, after all, not Liszt. For me, enjoyable though the Polonaise is, it isn't quite up to the quality of the other works in Nguyen's carefully chosen programme to which it nonetheless makes an effective conclusion.

Raff could not have a more impressive and dedicated advocate than Tra Nguyen and lovers of his music lovers are in her debt. These three CDs are a truly impressive achievement. The recording, again made by Michael Ponder at the famous Wyastone Hall, is impeccable and the packaging continues the high standard already set by this new label. Readers can judge the quality of the booklet notes for themselves by reading them at the Naxos website.

A triumphant conclusion to a magnificent series.

Mark Thomas
November 2012

Tra Nguyen talks about Raff Piano Works vol.3:

All six CDs in this series are now also available in a box set:

Box set

More Raff on Tra Nguyen's YouTube Channel

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