No.6 op.189 and Orchestral Suite No.2 "Hungarian" op.194
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7108 2003 DDD 69:12
Raff's Symphony No.6 is a potential problem. When it was premiered it was greeted with general disappointment, not meeting the expectations raised by the Im Walde and Lenore symphonies. More recently, Schneider's recording of it for Marco Polo (8.223638) seemed to confirm this judgment, making the work come across as three movements of note-spinning partially redeemed by the "funeral march" slow movement. In their previous five releases Stadlmair and his players have demonstrated a powerful empathy for Raff's music - they would be doing a great service to his memory if posterity's dismissal of this work could be reversed.
Comparisons with the Marco Polo issue are inescapable. Stadlmair is a few seconds faster in the first and fourth movements and takes slightly longer over the Vivace second movement. He lops almost two and a half minutes off the slow movement, however, about which more later. Listened to objectively there isn't that much difference between the tempi of the two in the opening Allegro. Greater dynamic range gives the Swiss CD the edge thanks both to Stadlmair's interpretation and the more brilliant modern sound. The resulting urgency which is imparted to the music counteracts the rambling feeling so characteristic of the Schneider performance and reveals the piece as a much better work than one previously thought.
The same is true of the second movement which skitters along busily - the familiar muscular Mendelssohnian idiom of Raff's scherzos is nicely contrasted with the brief lyrical trio episodes. Stadlmair has shown in past issues that he understands that Raff's tempi are generally on the brisk side but he goes too far in the Larghetto, quasi Marcia funebre third movement. He takes the key "quasi" too literally and so the whole movement goes at a marching pace - just about bearable for the funeral march itself, but the beautiful cantabile melody which follows is trivialised by being played too fast and the fugal section looses its power too. The symphony as a whole needs a weighty counterbalance to the other three fast movements and Schneider himself provides it in a moving interpretation of this solemn piece which conveys real nobility.
The fourth movement is best passed over. Raff's finales are sometimes not on a par with the preceding movements but seldom is the contrast as stark as it is in this work. The Bambergers play it well enough (certainly better than Schneider's often scrappy Kosice orchestra) and the sparkling sound brings out all Raff's expert orchestration but the unfocussed jollity of the melodically undistinguished piece lets the whole work down.
It is clear why Raff's contemporaries were disappointed by the sixth - a finale of more substance would have improved it immeasurably as the first two movements are now revealed by Stadlmair as sharing the quality of invention already demonstrated by Schneider in his reading of the slow movement. Although it did have a programme (amply described in the insert notes) this was suppressed by Raff on publication and his judgment was sound. Stylistically, No.6 is a continuation of his other abstract symphonies, Nos.2 and 4 rather than a natural progression from Lenore.
The "Hungarian" Suite for Orchestra No.2 is more straightforward fare and it's an utterly delightful work. It is much more akin to the "Italian" Suite in its happy, vivid pictorialism than to the rather more sober "Thuringian" and Stadlmair revels in it. This is the work's recording premiere and it's good that it can be welcomed almost without reservation.
The Overture is taken at a cracking pace - perhaps, again, a bit too fast. That said, Stadlmair relaxes into the lyrical second subject nicely after the opening breakneck fanfares and the Bambergers never fail to respond with playing of precision and verve. The operatic quality of the piece is underscored by Stadlmair with plenty of rhythmic excitement. Great fun.
The plaintive opening of the second movement leads into an evocation of the Hungarian steppe - maybe a shepherd dreaming his time away playing the flute. It should perhaps have been lingered over more but, unlike in the symphony's slow movement, here one can respect Stadlmair's artistic judgment. The tempo works. The sprightly march which follows is an irresistible piece of Raff showmanship - the soldiers passing to a kaleidoscope of Magyar colouring with melodies and rhythms calculated to get one whistling. A cheap trick maybe - but an effective one.
The high point of the work is the fourth movement. Raff's constantly changing tempi and orchestration in this set of imaginative variations on a beguilingly simple folk song are fluidly picked out by Stadlmair who delivers an impeccable rendition of this little gem.
For the finale Raff lays on the local colour with a trowel and the Bamberg players respond with idiomatic playing that would convince you that they hailed from the Puszta themselves. The slow first half could be one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and in the closing pages Raff whips up the tempo into a whirling dance which ends in a satisfying recall of the Overture's opening fanfares. Neither Raff nor his interpreters put a foot wrong here.
This CD is a bit of a mixed bag, then. The symphony is a fine performance let down by its slow movement (Stadlmair's fault) and its finale (Raff's fault). The Hungarian Suite is a constant delight. The playing throughout is generally up to the usual high Bamberg standard - a black mark, though, for not correcting some poor pizzicato playing at around 2:50 in the symphony's Allegro.
Technically, the sound is fine and gives the disk a substantial edge over the Marco Polo issue. The insert notes are (at least in their English translation) odd. The discussion of the symphony's abortive programme is detailed and interesting but the Suite (which actually lasts longer than the symphony) is dismissed in a few lines and the background biographical data on Raff is inaccurate in several places. It smacks of a rushed job.
Recommended wholeheartedly for the Suite. Not so wholeheartedly for
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