Grand Piano GP654

CD Reviews: Raff Piano Works vol.5

"Raff Piano Works vol.5" - Grande Sonate Op.14, Blätter und Blüten Op.135a
Tra Nguyen, piano
Grand Piano GP654 2015 DDD 73:07

British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen's magisterial advocacy of Raff's solo piano music reaches its fifth volume, and it's a sobering thought that the next release will be the last in this important series. Grand Piano has never pretended that this was a "complete works" exercise, which would have required dozens more CDs, but what we will have when volume six is released later this year is a invaluable survey of what Nguyen herself, having looked over many more scores than she has recorded, regards as amongst Raff's best compositions for her instrument.

Only two works are included in this latest release. Both are substantial compositions lasting well over half an hour, but they have very different characters. Blätter und Blüten (Leaves and Blossoms) is a set of a dozen small scale pieces, one of several such collections composed over the years which pepper Raff's catalogue. The Grande Sonate, on the other hand, is a four movement work conceived on a symphonic scale. The contrast between the two works is fascinating and instructive.

The Piano Sonata is Raff's third and last essay in the genre, it's early opus number disguising the fact that it was written in 1881, just months before his death. Although it has its fair share of brilliance, and certainly makes formidable demands on the pianist's technique, there's an underlying austerity and bleak grandeur to the work which the pianist needs to connect with for its valedictory character to be be revealed. In the wrong hands the piece can come across as coldly virtuosic, and certainly warmth is sacrificed to brilliance in Ruiz's driven account on Genesis [review]. Valentina Seferinova's was the only available account for over a decade (originally on Cahoots, and now Cameo Classics), and it has worn well [review]. It certainly gets much nearer than does Ruiz but, despite being almost 3½ minutes faster, now seems both somewhat pedestrian and safe when compared with Nguyen's magnificent account.

Under Nguyen's hands, the full panorama of Raff's penultimate piano work is revealed. She is fully up to its technical requirements but, just as important, she has the emotional intelligence to bring out the tenderness, regret and wistful nostalgia which underlie all the surface brilliance. She invests the score with so much more warmth and humanity than Ruiz found in it, and surpasses Seferinova in the dynamic range and subtlety of her interpretation. Nguyen's way with the roller-coaster opening Allegro reconciles its alternating polyphony and homophonic passages without it ever sounding episodic. The transitions between the second movement's quicksilver outer sections and its meltingly lyrical central passage are handled with delicate sensitivity. The slow movement, as so often with Raff, is the work's centre of gravity. Nguyen magically brings out the atmosphere of dignified regret underpinning its strong melodic flow and succession of subtly varying textures. Her interpretation of the finale is satisfyingly restrained, the mood being one of catharsis, rather than of triumph. All in all, this is a highly satisfying and mature reading, which at last reveals Raff's Sonata as a worthy conclusion to his catalogue for the instrument.

The concept underlying Blätter und Blüten is the Language of Flowers, each of its numbers is named for a plant which itself acts as a proxy for human emotions and traits. Raff is a past master at portraying these characteristics in piano miniatures and does so most successfully in this set. His careful planning of the order of the numbers within the set produces plenty of variety of mood and texture over the 38 minutes of the set. Away from the monumentality of the Sonata, Nguyen here shows a delicacy, flexibility and subtlety appropriate to the much smaller span of each of these delicious little pieces. Her phrasing of Raff's generous melodies has always been one of the most satisfying aspects of her interpretations, and Blätter und Blüten abounds with grateful tunes which she doesn't so much showcase, as allow to shine in the piquant settings which Raff devised for them.

Nguyen's interpretations of Raff are peerless. She inhabits the music. Having already given us four CDs of his solo piano music no one has more empathy for Raff's writing for the instrument than she, and we're lucky that she also has the technique to match its prodigious technical demands. As this series has progressed, so has our indebtedness to her for shining a light on such an important part of Raff's oeuvre. Unreservedly recommended.

Mark Thomas
March 2015

Tra Nguyen talks about Raff Piano Works vol.5:

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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