Grand Piano GP653

CD Reviews: Raff Piano Works vol.4

"Raff Piano Works vol.4" - Douze Romances en forme d'Études Op.8, Allegro Agitato Op.151, La Cicerenella Op.165, Idylle & Valse Champêtre Op.166
Tra Nguyen, piano
Grand Piano GP653 2014 DDD 58:39

It's not that long ago that the prospect of a series of recordings focusing on Raff's piano music would have seemed an impossible pipe dream, so it was very welcome news last year that Naxos' premium piano music label, Grand Piano, had been sufficiently encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of their original three CD series of Raff's piano music to go on and commission a further trio of recordings from Tra Nguyen.

As my reviews of the first three discs [Vol.1, Vol.2 and Vol.3] make clear, whilst no doubt she would self-effacingly claim that all the credit for the series' success is due to the quality of Raff's music, there can be no doubt that Nguyen has proved to be its ideal interpreter. A convinced Raff enthusiast herself, she has the uncanny knack of inhabiting the music, one feels that she has an instinctive empathy with it: be it pathos, charm, excitement or bombast, Nguyen has the technique and poetic insight to deliver in an utterly convincing manner. It's enough of a recommendation to say that Tra Nguyen carries on where she left off in volume 3.

The major item in Vol.4 is the set of Douze Romances en forme d'Études Op.8. This is very early Raff; he was a 20 year old schoolteacher when he composed these twelve pieces. The Douze Romances was amongst the batch of compositions which he sent to Mendelssohn, earning the latter's enthusiastic approval and launching Raff on his career as a composer. It's easy to hear why Mendelssohn was so impressed: these short etudes are far from being amateur efforts and, while they do exhibit a charming naivety here and there, it's Raff's fund of attractive melody clothed in piquant harmony which continually fascinates. A mixture of fast and slow, upbeat and sad, these are grateful pieces, sometimes brash, often affectingly lovely, but never descending into triteness. With the whole set occupying just 34 minutes, none of of them outstays its welcome.

Opening the CD is a virtuoso tour de force, showcasing both its creator and the soloist. In La Cicerenella Op.165 Raff packs an Introduction, 13 variations and a Coda into a mere eight minutes. This scintillating piece is a gift for any pianist of stature, and its virtuosic demands showcase Nguyen's technique as she dashes off its fierier moments with aplomb, whilst never losing sight of the contrast of its tenderer passages, such as the delightful Larghetto variation at the core of the work.

Composed in the same year as La Cicerenella (1871), the two pieces in Op.166 are a real pleasure: Idylle is the more contemplative of the two: a fine, stubbornly memorable slow melody book-ending faster material in a short fantasia, by turns meditative and animated. Its companion piece, Valse champêtre, is a delightfully hesitant medium-paced waltz which hides substantial pitfalls for the unwary pianist. Both works see Nguyen playing at her seductive best, making it easy to see why pieces such as these made Raff such a popular composer for the piano in his day.

Having opened this volume with a virtuoso roller coaster, Nguyen's final piece is another show stopper. The Allegro agitato Op.151 lives up to its name: it's an angrily passionate, stormy work which makes for a very effective contrast to the pieces which precede it. Suddenly switching from caressing the piano to emphasise the languorous charms of the Valse champêtre, Nguyen attacks the keyboard with precision and power as she delivers a persuasively intense performance of the Allegro agitato, superbly articulated.

This welcome fourth disc in Grand Piano's series once again features world premiere recordings of piano music of the highest quality, played with intelligence, subtlety and superb technique by Tra Nguyen. All Raff enthusiasts are greatly in their debt.

Mark Thomas
April 2014

Tra Nguyen talks about Raff Piano Works vol.4:

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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