No.7 In den Alpen op.201 and Celebration Overture op.103
Philharmonia Hungarica, Conductor: Werner Andreas Albert
cpo 999 289 2004 DDD 65:38
Hans Stadlmair's revelatory interpretation of Raff's Symphony No.7 (Tudor 7117 - review), kicked Urs Schneider's old Marco Polo performance into retirement after a dozen years service. Now, only a month later, competition for the crown arrives in the shape of Werner Andreas Albert's recording, made for German label cpo way back in the early 1990s. It has been preceded by his not very compelling cycle of the four Seasons symphonies (review), which was let down by poor sound and sometimes scrappy playing from the Philharmonia Hungarica, now sadly disbanded. Is this CD any better?
It is scarcely credible that this terrific performance comes from the same stable. The Philharmonia Hungarica are on much better form than they were in the previous set - no signs of the sloppy ensemble so evident in No.8, for example. The recording seems brighter and has much more presence, too, so the technical side of things matches cpo's usual standard.
More importantly, though, Herr Albert manages to dispense with the reserve that seemed to characterise his readings of the other four symphonies, and here directs a full -blooded and intelligent performance which is fully the equal of Stadlmair's and arguably surpasses it. Overall, Albert takes 7½ minutes longer than his colleague - but this is deceptive as over half of the difference is accounted for by a much more expansive account of the slow movement.
The maestoso opening has never portrayed the majesty of the alpine landscape more effectively - a very impressive start. When we get to the first movement proper, Albert is certainly a couple of minutes slower on paper than Stadlmair, but the music never drags or lacks sparkle. There's plenty of variation of speed within the overall tempo, and this keeps the interest up too. Whatever their shortcomings in the earlier recordings, cpo's engineers have done a good job of capturing the excellent virtuosity of the Philharmonia Hungarica's wind players in this piece. It's a confident and inspiring start.
Used as we were to Schneider's lumbering pace, Stadlmair's speedy way with the second movement, At the Inn, came as a welcome shock. Albert is marginally faster still, but the overall effect is pretty much the same and there's nothing much to choose between them. The biggest difference comes in their treatment of the Larghetto slow movement, On the Lake. Stadlmair is way too fast here, but Albert is spot on, taking things pretty much at the same tempo as Schneider, but having the benefit of a much better orchestra and recording. The sultry afternoon, with the threat of distant thunder is captured to magical effect.
In the finale, as in the opening Allegro, Albert sets a pace slightly slower but just as effective as that adopted by his Bamberg rival. The wind players are on top form as they chatter away at the start of the piece and the cellos relish their starring role in the wrestling contest music. Where Albert slows substantially in contrast to Stadlmair is in the final third of the movement, Departure, where Raff reprises material from earlier in the symphony. This bittersweet moment is handled beautifully, it's much better than Stadlmair's rushed farewell or Schneider's unemotional backward glance.
The Celebration Overture op.103 is one of a series of pièces d'occassion which Raff wrote in the 1860s. Based upon the anthem of the duchy of Nassau (more familiar to us now as "God save the Queen"), it is a technically very proficient but conventional work which doesn't really justify it's quarter of an hour. Albert does his best, but he doesn't manage to convince that it is a unrecognised masterpiece, despite some excellent playing. It's a shame that cpo couldn't find a piece amongst their many un-issued Raff recordings more worthy of coupling with such a fine performance of the symphony.
Matthias Wiegandt's booklet notes are as intelligent and informative as we have come to expect from him, although the English translation is clunky in several places (did Raff really design the Overture?).
Overall, this is an even more satisfying rendition of the symphony than Stadlmair's; the treatment of the slow movement and at the close of the finale just giving it the edge. If you buy only one, make it this one.
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