No.7 In den Alpen op.201, Orchestral arrangement of J.S. Bach's Chaconne for solo violin WoO.39 and Abends-Rhapsode op.163b
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7117 2004 DDD 61:23
The Symphony No.7 in B flat major op.201 In den Alpen was Raff's symphonic tribute to Switzerland, the country of his youth. Poorly received by audiences in its day, it also had one of the most lukewarm performances of Urs Schneider's cycle for the Marco Polo label. It would be an exaggeration to say that expectations for this release in Stadlmair's ongoing survey were low, but the consensus has been that this was one of the weaker works in Raff's symphonic canon and so even he, consummate Raff interpreter though he is, was not expected to work miracles with the piece.
It's a long score. Schneider (not usually a slouch) took 50:44 in his Marco Polo recording and a minute or so longer in his later (and better) live performance in St. Gallen. With no cuts, Stadlmair hacks 8 minutes off that timing, and the result is almost wholly beneficial. Indeed, this recording is a revelation.
The majestic opening sounds terrific - one can really picture the immense peaks rising above the wanderer. The transition to the exposition is beautifully managed, the various motifs being introduced delicately before the traveler starts his journey. Stadlmair's pace is fast, but it transforms what had seemed to be a garrulous, rambling movement into a blazing picture of Raff's absolute delight at the alpine landscape. At 16 minutes it's still long, but 90 seconds have been shaved off Schneider's timing and at the same time Stadlmair has revealed many magical moments - the repeated horn calls are wonderful, for example. This infusion of vigour into the piece lights it up, and in my book it joins the company of Raff's truly inspiring opening movements. It's worth the price of the CD on its own.
There's more to come. The second movement isn't a scherzo, but marked by Raff Andante quasi Allegro. Here Stadlmair ignores that puzzling direction, decides that its an Allegro, and again the piece bursts into life. Gone are the drooping rhythms of Schneider's two performances (9:21 and 10:58 against Stadlmair's 6:08!). It's a really happy time "At the inn" and, although Stadlmair should have slowed the pace rather more for the contrasting second section, the virtuosity of his woodwind players is staggering as they lead the orchestra back into the irresistible restatement of the pounding first theme. The ending is a joyous explosion of festivity.
Speeding up the slow movement "On the Lake" was a mistake, however. Here Schneider has a distinct edge, conveying the languid torpor of a lazy afternoon. Stadlmair's briskness, so right elsewhere, robs this wonderfully brooding piece of much of its atmosphere. The intermittent rumbling of the timpani - portraying the menace of distant thunder - somehow looses any significance. That wonderful shimmering, unexpected climax early on in the piece is rushed - the surprise release of tension smoothed over. It's pretty and melodious, but that isn't enough. What a shame.
Luckily, Stadlmair is back on form for the finale. He sets a cracking pace - a full minute faster than Schneider's fine live performance, which itself seemed risky at the time. The Bamberg wind players have a lot of work to do here and they are in tip top form. The tempo of the various "Wrestling Contest" dances is nicely varied to keep the excitement up. There's plenty of humour here, too - just listen to the way the most rustic of the melodies is transformed by a fughetto passage. The multiple counterpoint at the close of the festival sequence is very well played, too - each theme clear, but integrated. The only trick missed by Stadlmair comes in the first section of the coda. Raff reprises material from earlier movements, and slackening the pace rather more here would have conveyed that sorrow at departure which is so appropriate to a final view of the distant alpine massif.
Speed of itself is a crude instrument, but in three of this misjudged symphony's movements a fast pace, coupled with intelligent interpretation and a fine orchestra has wrought a transformation. In the slow movement alone, Stadlmair would have been better off taking a lesson from Schneider.
Undue haste also detracts from an otherwise very acceptable performance of Raff's masterly orchestration of J.S. Bach's Chaconne. The playing is fine, the dynamics are appropriate but it is a little too fast to match the grandeur demonstrated by Leonard Slatkin's BBC Philharmonic in their polished performance for Chandos [review].
Stadlmair's handling of the gorgeously Wagnerian Abends-Rhapsodie, though, is spot on. He allows the lovely melody (originally the 5th. movement of the Piano Suite in G) to unfold at its own pace, which is nearly 2 minutes longer than the only competition - Francesco d'Avalos and the Philharmonia on ASV. This new reading is so sensuous one really wonders just what sort of rhapsody Raff had in mind when orchestrating it!
The general quality of the orchestral playing, the insert notes by Walter Labhart and the sound quality of the CD maintain the high standard already set by Tudor in earlier volumes of this series. Were it not for the misguided tempo of the symphony's slow movement, this issue would be an unreserved triumph. As it is, one must still give Stadlmair his due for breathing life into the unpromising corpse of Raff's alpine tribute. It is a very much better work than most Raff enthusiasts had dared suspect and Stadlmair deserves our thanks for revealing it to us.
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