Naxos 8.555491
Naxos 8.555491

CD Reviews: Symphonies Nos.3 and 10

Symphony No.3 Im Walde op.153, Symphony No.10 Zur Herbstzeit op.213

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice), Conductor: Urs Schneider
Naxos 8.555491 2003 DDD 69:34

It's good to see Naxos getting on with the job of re-releasing the old Marco Polo Raff symphonic cycle. It is the most popular classical label in the world and having Raff in its repertoire list can only help the appreciation of his music. There are now three symphonies available from this stable and a further one will be added to the budget label as marco Polo stocks run out.

So far so good. Now the bad news. One of the two works on this CD is disfigured by a huge cut, rendering it quite out of contention for serious listening.

Let's dispose of the problem piece first. The Symphony No.3 Im Walde is one of the glories of the Raff canon - a passionately romantic evocation of nature. Here, its first three movements are presented in a workmanlike manner, giving a fair but hardly impassioned account of the notes. Unfortunately, maestro Schneider then eviscerates the finale, excising six or seven minutes from it in a life-threatening cut which removes all musical and narrative logic and whisks us without pause from the exposition to the coda. There is also an utterly inexplicable combination of the third movement and the truncated finale into one track (though still noted as separate tracks on the CD sleeve) - a "feature" missing from the Marco Polo CD, although the cut itself was present in the original. There is just no case to be made for giving Schneider's offering any more consideration, even at such a budget price, when there are three other readings of the symphony currently available, all of them more than adequate in all four movements.

Luckily the Symphony No.10 Zur Herbstzeit fares rather better. It is in some ways a companion piece to No.3 with both first movements having the subtitle "Impressions & feelings" and each finale portraying a hunt. The later work is, however, rather less exuberant and more, well, autumnal. Schneider knows that Raff doesn't hang around and he certainly gets the opening Allegro moderato off to a confident, if perhaps not very poetic, start. The first great climax has an almost pefunctory feel although Schneider then relaxes convincingly into the following section. This sets the tone and overall there is a feeling of the movement being a "near miss".

Listen to an audio extract This example is the opening of the Symphony No.10's 1st. movement [2:00]

The second movement's "ghost's dance" is a disappointingly staid affair at which Jane Austen would feel at home - it isn't enough just to rely on Raff's expert orchestration to hint at the spectral nature of the festivities. The tempi aren't so much slow, as unvarying and uninteresting. Things do buck up a little as the ghouls lurch into a wayward waltz but there are few chills or thrills here.

Schneider seems much more at home in the lovely Elegie. It is taken at just the right pace and the idyllic passage pre-echoing Tchaikovsky's 5th. is a beautiful centrepiece, lovingly phrased and sensitively played.

The Slovak horns get the finale off to a suitably bucolic start and this largely good natured movement trips along well enough but by the end it all seems rather inconsequential. This is one of Raff's better finales and Schneider does whip up the action in the "hunt" section. It comes across very well but the horn and trumpet calls which follow aren't very thrilling and, judging by the way that it scurries on to its conclusion, one feels almost as if all concerned had by now got bored with the piece.

In sum then, this symphony in particular has a rather rushed feel. Perhaps Schneider was conscious in his recording sessions of the need to squeeze these substantial works on to a single CD, resulting in the haste in one and the cut in the other? The transfer to Naxos has at least brightened the original rather murky recording - it seems less recessed and rather sharper than in the original Marco Polo CD and the various short solos are well highlighted. We presumably have modern pressing techniques to thank for that.

The 10th's only competition is from Tudor - a 27-year old recording in which Francis Travis conducts the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra. His tempi are generally substantially slower than Schneider's - often too slow - but he does convey an elemental majesty quite lacking from Schneider's run through and the Basel players have a better sense of ensemble. The brass is particularly effective in the finale and there is a glow to the recording's ambience. Despite its deficiencies and being hard to track down, this is the performance of choice.

Even at Naxos' budget price, avoid this CD unless you already have a recording of the 3rd. Symphony.

Mark Thomas

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