Symphony No.5 op.177 Lenore and Nos.3-6
from Six Pieces op.85 (in orchestral arrangements)
Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor: Yondani Butt, Violin: Yuko Nishino
ASV DCA 1000 1997 DDD 73:25
Anyone who wants a complete collection of Raff's works naturally has to have this CD, for where else would one find the four orchestrated extracts from op. 85? Perhaps the Cavatina then is the main attraction, through the back door? Perhaps not, as luckily the trifles are not blown up into large orchestral creations.
No, let us turn at once to the main work in the second Raff recording under the ASV label. Is it possible that after the Symphony No.3 "Im Walde" only Raff's second symphonic triumph will follow, or is this to be the already announced cycle of all orchestral works? Urs Schneider with his Slovakian Orchestra (on Marco Polo) has already staked his claim to this, although with some very problematical interventions in the structure of the work and with a sometimes not very satisfactory interpretation, but some supporting readings would be of advantage in order to illuminate the varying aspects of Raff's symphonies.
The Fifth in particular could do with a few more alternatives. In the still unsurpassed recording which Bernard Herrmann in 1970 not only conducted but also paid for because no label was prepared to fund the project, the composition is freely interpreted. Hermann quietly lets the line take its path, interpreting the score as a romantic masterpiece, its climax broadly played out in the tradition of Wagnerian conductors. Following the anaemic recording by Matthais Baumert (on Koch Schwann) in the early 1980s, Urs Schneider brings a welcome contrast to Lenore, particularly in the lyrical and recitative parts. Suddenly one is able to understand one's own feeling on hearing the Herrmann interpretation. Where is the ever-present Mendelssohn echo in this score? Schneider gives the answer, brings out the woodwinds, lightens the score and convinces in the finale with those tempo fluctuations which are so often misunderstood in Raff's music. As a whole, the orchestra is lacking in steadiness, the whinnying of horses in the death ride is only a weak coughing, and the posthumous transfiguration remains sterile.
Now, in Yondani Butt's interpretation we have another approach, but the fourth way is in this case a median one which shows Raff's decision (which I once referred to as doing the splits between the musical parties) to weave in literal programmatic content on the basis of traditional form progressions, thus producing a synthesis of performance practice. This description may be surprising but the middle way, which Raff liked to take and not always wrongly, is an effective narcotic. Almost everything sounds well proportioned, the structures of the movements are audible, the sound is not too thin but not too brassy, the beautiful horn part before the end of the Andante middle section sounds almost as sonorous as in Herrmann's interpretation, the horse sounds are somewhat more naturalistic; but taking all these aspects together a faithful interpretation is not apparent, which theoretically could be the case. Or could it not? It is not an error to buy this CD, but anyone who knows Hermann's and Schneider's recordings well and acknowledges the merits of each would rank this reading in third place.
Taking the grandiose, daring live performance of the "Alpen" symphony
by Giovanni Bria (Lachen 1997), it occurred
to me that Raff's music needs its own performance tradition. In the first
place performers who do not intend to spell out the scores note by note,
or to put themselves in the limelight but to offer a three-dimensional,
maybe extreme, but sensible reading of the work. A reading worthy of
the name is when the work and its references have been reflected and
acted upon. I would be interested to know if Raft's recurring fourth
in the Lenore (which begins with one) is only a supporting
element of the score and in no way has to be heard as a sensory element,
or whether one should try to bring out this fourth every time. In Butt's
interpretation, the fourth at the beginning is emphasized, but then disappears.
As we have already said, Lenore needs several different readings,
which speak to her .... This one definitely holds its own against the
Baumert recording and takes an honourable place in the midfield. Anyone
who is not already familiar with the work should start with Bernard Hermann.
[This review was originally published in German in the Newsletter of the Joachim Raff Society]
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