No.1 An das vaterland op.96
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7099 2001 DDD 67:47
Hans Stadlmair and Tudor have served Raff enthusiasts well over the last couple of years with three first rate recordings of orchestral music. The two symphonies already released - No.3 and No.5 are sure fire hits but the Violin Concertos were less certain repertoire and Stadlmair and his Bambergers did them proud. Having built up a loyal following, each new release in a cycle runs the risk of disappointment - so does this issue continue or confound the positive trend? The short answer is that Stadlmair has maintained his reputation and the CD is a welcome addition to the Raff discography but not, perhaps, without some misgivings.
The question is: should those doubts be addressed to Stadlmair or to the composer himself?
The Symphony No.1 is a strange work, written to a programme celebrating Germany and the German character which Raff sometimes struggles to interpret coherently. It is an ambitious piece - 67 minutes in this performance - and its five movements can be diffuse. Despite the praise heaped upon it after winning the 1863 Vienna prize, it is not mature Raff and it seldom reaches the heights of some of his later symphonies. It is very much a work of its time and can be oddly anonymous - Raff's fingerprints are not as easy to spot as in his later music. Any conductor therefore has a more difficult job than in many of Raff's works to produce a performance which convinces, but Stadlmair probably makes as good a case as can be made for this period piece.
For 13 years, Samuel Friedman and the Rhenish Philharmonic on Marco Polo had the Symphony No.1 to themselves. Listening to the first few seconds of this new recording immediately underlines the extent to which the Tudor CD is a great improvement. The sonic world has depth and clarity, the Bamberg Symphony possess a sonorous and accurate ensemble and Stadlmair manages to combine grandeur with pace to give the music both beauty and direction. His timing for the extensive opening Allegro is actually the longer by half a minute, but there is none of the rambling feeling which Friedman produced. The long movement bustles along with some purpose in the new recording.
The hunting scherzo, which comes second, gets similar treatment in both interpretations but nonetheless Stadlmair's superior orchestra and recording enable him to make the most of things. The contrast between the contenders in the central Larghetto movement is very telling, however. Without sacrificing any of Raff's glorious details in this lovely piece, Stadlmair shaves a minute off Friedman's timing and yet makes it seem both deeper and more contemplative, whilst not without a touch of drama. The cello solos are given prominence in the Tudor recording, to very good if slightly kitsch effect. This is a period piece, after all. They are absent from the Marco Polo version, to its detriment. More than any other movement, this one most resembles vintage Raff and Stadlmair revels in it.
The Allegro dramatico movement and the long closing finale are both quicker by a minute under Stadlmair, whilst never seeming rushed. His tempi and dynamics are both more varied and more appropriate to the material than Friedman's - Stadlmair is an experienced Raff conductor and knows how to bring out the best in the music. Unfortunately, there is no avoiding the touches of bombast which pervade both these pieces. He does his best to integrate them into the rest of the movement and in this he succeeds much better than his predecessor - the triumphalism is at least in its programmatic context.
Overall, then, a qualified success and Stadlmair should be applauded
for allowing us to hear this variable work in its best light. The Bambergers
are a reliable team who play here just as well as they have in their
other Raff outings - excellently. The patriotic programme which could
(but shouldn't) be a cause of embarrassment is sensitively discussed
in Werner Grimmel's intelligent and extensive notes. The sound world
is consistent with the other Tudor recordings - warm and detailed, with
plently of depth.
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