No.1 An das Vaterland op.96
Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor: Samuel Friedman
Naxos 8.555411 1988/2001 DDD 70:23
Until Hans Stadlmair and his Bamberg Orchestra (review) challenged its position in 2001, this was the only available recording of Raff's first surviving symphony. Available for many years as part of Marco Polo's ground breaking complete cycle of the symphonies, it has been newly reissued under HNH International's super-budget Naxos label. The cynical suspicion must be that it was timed to spike Tudor's guns. At scarcely more than the price of a decent drink (at least in the UK!), Naxos CDs will often tempt the curious to sample the music of a composer unknown to them and on whom they wouldn't risk the cost of a full price issue.
Cheap or not, a poor performance wouldn't temp a novice to explore Raff further.
Apart from this recording, the rest of Marco Polo Raff symphonic cycle was in the hands of Urs Schneider and his Bratislava orchestra (under its various names) with variable but generally unexciting results. Friedman had the benefit of the much more capable Rhenish Philharmonic and his performance remains one of the better ones in the series. In presenting Raff's leviathan of a symphony convincingly, though, Friedman had a major obstacle to overcome - Raff's prolix score. With its idealistic and patriotic programme "An das Vaterland" is a monster of a work which can seem verbose and repetitive if not tightly controlled. There are substantial foretastes of mature Raff - particularly in the 2nd. movement scherzo and the following larghetto - but this remains a 'prentice work. In particular, in the wrong hands the two final movements can seem to ramble.
Given, then, that this is a difficult piece to bring off well, Friedman makes a reasonable stab at it. Friedman's opening movement celebrating various aspects of the German character has plenty of momentum, that essential ingredient to Raff's Allegros. It doesn't drag, but compared with Stadlmair's alternative the tempi aren't sufficiently varied to bring out all the detail in the writing and to maintain interest.
The hunting scherzo Allegro vivace is carried off convincingly enough, although it is perhaps the most straightforward of the five movements.
The central Larghetto is the movement most characteristic of mature Raff and its melodic richness is put over well by Friedman. Again there is a uniformity of tempo which smoothes out the subtle contrasts of atmosphere with which Raff infuses the score and only leaves one with an impression of rather diffuse loveliness. The important (if rather schmaltzy) passages for solo cello don't stand out at all from the general sound. Taking the piece at a rather brisker pace, Stadlmair is greatly to be preferred here.
The last last two movements again emphasise the difference between the approaches of Friedman and Stadlmair. Particularly in these two pieces Raff can be seem to ramble and Friedman's easier tempi do nothing to hide this. The Allegro dramatico fourth movement is not particularly dramatic and a lack of dynamic contrast and unwillingness to vary the pace to emphasise episodes in the score contribute to this. Similarly Raff's already extended finale, at a full minute longer than Stadlmair's, runs the risk of losing the listener's attention although Friedman does manage to keep the potentially bombastic melodic material within tasteful bounds.
Whilst not being in the top flight, the Rhenish Philharmonic acquit themselves well and their woodwind in particular seem to relish Raff's idiomatic and effective writing for them.
Overall, then, this is far from being a bad performance but it is not in the same league as Stadlmair's modern interpretation. Stadlmair has had the benefit of having conducted many Raff scores in the last few years and so has learned what works and what doesn't. Presumably this was a one off for Friedman who had no previous performances upon which to draw. He can be excused for taking a safer approach to this unknown work from a then still relatively unknown composer.
The 1988 recording is at quite a low level but has a reasonable dynamic range and the insert notes are adequate without being generous. This is quite recommendable for the budget conscious seeker after curiosities but a serious Raff enthusiast would do much better to invest time and money in tracking down Stadlmair's excellent new Tudor recording.
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