No.4 op.167, Concert Overture op.123, Overtures to the Operas: Die Parole WoO.29, Dame Kobold op.154 and Benedetto Marcello Woo.46
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7113 2004 DDD 64:55
With a programme which includes one of Raff's most successful symphonic creations and a brace of hitherto unrecorded opera overtures, this CD is a particularly beguiling prospect. Although Benedetto Marcello did receive a belated concert performance a couple of years ago, the recording of it hasn't yet made it to CD. None of the music from Die Parole seems ever to have been heard in public. The other three works are already familiar from Marco Polo's pioneering set of recordings and Dame Kobold's fizzing overture and the Symphony No.4 itself are also to be found on one other CD apiece.
Stadlmair's credentials as a Raff interpreter are well established; he invariably approaches the symphonies as if they were established repertoire, producing hard driven but thoughtfully detailed and generally convincing accounts. Rather against expectations, the symphony's first movement is not taken at breakneck pace. His moderate tempo is well judged - the characteristic Raff momentum is there, but the Bambergers are allowed time to bring out all those felicitous little details in the orchestration which make a Raff score such a joy. The delicious little Allegro molto which follows is taken with just the right amount of bustle and humour. Raff told his daughter that it was a portrait of her as a little girl and that image is certainly appropriate here.
The slow movement is the piece's centre of gravity and here Stadlmair is appreciably faster than Wetton (Hyperion Helios CDH55017) and Schneider (Marco Polo 8.223529). Not too quick, though. His brisk tempo works well with this generally sombre set of variations - the climax at 5:30 is particularly effective here. The finale, one of Raff's most satisfying, bowls along irresistibly. The Bamberg woodwinds in particular make a virtuoso showing.
The Fourth Symphony is amongst Raff's finest and here it at last has a performance worthy of it, ranking alongside Stadmair's Symphony No.2 as a recording I would give any skeptic to convince him of the composer's worth. Schneider's old Marco Polo account is completely outclassed and Wetton, although much nearer Stadlmair in the interpretation stakes, doesn't have an orchestra which can match the fine Bamberg band.
Stadlmair's take on all three opera overtures is to play their meltingly lyrical themes for all they are worth and then to crank up the speed to the max for the contrasting fast sections. This is true theatre overture territory and these three delightful confections respond well to the treatment. Benedetto Marcello's Overture belts along in a welter of swirling strings, once the opening lyrical idea is stated. Its return midway through the work is sensitively integrated into the framing fast sections, with the pace being picked up in subtle gradations. Very nicely done.
The Dame Kobold Overture is more familiar - it appears both in Schneider's Marco Polo series (Marco Polo 8.223638) and as a counterweight to Nicholas Carthy's account of the Lenore Symphony (Dynamic CDS 283 - review). Here Stadlmair, at 6:42, shaves about 45 seconds off the times of those two very different performances and delivers a top notch listen. The wittily pointed phrasing of the galop motif is an especially effective element and the closing stretta is real whistling, arm-waving territory for the frustrated conductors amongst us.
Die Parole was the first of the three operas to be written and its Overture is a real find - if anything, it is the most effective of the three. It opens with a grandiose call to attention, followed by one of those long-limbed lyrical ideas which stay stubbornly in the memory. Stadlmair properly lingers over this before the equally memorable fast material bustles in to great effect. At first acquaintance, this piece seems to have rather more serious substance than its younger siblings, but nonetheless it is treated to a winning, smile-inducing performance which comes to an appropriately sparkling close.
The Concert Overture is a piéce d'occassion and the earliest work here. It is by no means the stodgy Kapellmeister music that one might expect, and Stadlmair uses all his skill and the considerable virtuosity of the Bambergers to produce a performance which has plenty of dynamic and textural contrast. Although only slightly shorter than Schneider's account (Marco Polo 8.223506, coupled with the Symphony No.7), it is a much tauter and engaging rendition. Whilst not Raff's best work, it abounds with typical Raff touches, doesn't outstay its welcome and could hardly get a more persuasive performance than it has here.
The recording is of demonstration quality. Possessing warmth and depth, yet detailed enough to bring out all Raff's piquant writing for the woodwind, it is fully up to the best of Tudor's recent releases. The insert notes from Raff doyen Volker Tosta are a model of their kind. There's no laborious retelling of Raff's life. Instead Tosta writes about each work with intelligent enthusiasm and a musicologist's insight.
Despite trying hard not to ladle on the superlatives too thickly, the only criticism which I can muster is that the cover artwork is yet another of Böcklin's dismal paintings. This has to be the Raff recording of 2004. Buy it. In fact, buy several, and give them to your friends.
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