No.9 Im Sommer op.208 and Symphony
No.11 Der Winter op.214
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7120 2005 DDD 73:38
This CD brings to a close Tudor's survey of Raff's symphonic canon with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Hans Stadlmair. He doesn't have the field to himself as there are already three alternative recordings for each work, all of which date from the 1980s: Urs Schneider's trailblazing performances with his Slovak orchestra on Marco Polo (8.223362 and 8.223529), Werner Andreas Albert's accounts with the Philharmonia Hungarica for cpo (999 536 - review) and finally Tudor's original recordings with the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jean-Marie Auberson for No.9 and Mario Venzago for No.11 (Tudor 784 and 787).
The Summer Symphony begins promisingly. Although his account of the opening movement is the fastest of the four (12:16, against Auberson's 14:27 and Albert's 13:49), Stadlmair's tempi are flexible enough to allow the more reflective passages enough time to make their mark. An appropriately hazy opening leads lazily into the rustic charm of the first subject before the pace gathers momentum, but even in full flow the piece never feels rushed. Throughout, Stadlmair manages to maintain the excitement; the return of the great striding theme at around 7:50 is a particularly spine-tingling moment, for example.
Raff's Shakespearean scherzo is equally effective and the Bambergers deserve a lot of the credit. The virtuosity of the woodwinds in this delightful Midsummer Night's Dream concoction is especially apparent in several places, whilst the principal cello plays his concertante role with lyrical sensitivity. This piece's stature has never been better demonstrated. It is a worthy precursor to the Four Shakespeare Preludes which Raff wrote after he composed the symphony.
Stadlmair's way with Raff's slow movements can seem rushed, but here the pastoral Eclogue is presented without too much haste, even though it takes slightly less time to run its course than it does in the other performances. It isn't just an exercise in bucolic rusticity, though. Stadlmair brings a dark and threatening undertone to it, which is especially apparent in the first half of the movement. It makes the calmer idyll of the closing pages all the more lovely.
The rondo finale is a suitably joyous harvest celebration, the various episodes of which are given their own character in Stadlmair's intelligent interpretation. Skittish, playful, pompous and just plain happy by turn, this is an orchestral tour de force in which the Bambergers seem to revel. It's a shame, though, that the strings seem a little short of numbers in their lovely passage around 4:30. Both Schneider and Auberson make a large cut in this movement and Albert's approach is lumpen by comparison, so Stadlmair has the field to himself here. It's a fitting conclusion to his fine account of this exhilarating work.
Although the Winter Symphony is designated No.11, it was the first of the seasons symphonies to be written. Put aside by Raff for reasons which we do not know (but presumably because he was unhappy with it), it was published posthumously after an unknown (but probably minimal) amount of editing by his friend, the conductor Max Erdmannsdörfer. It has not fared well on disk, but Albert did manage to make something of a case for it, even though it still seemed to be amongst Raff's weaker creations.
Stadlmair's account forces one to radically reappraise the work. His performance of the opening Allegro "The first snow" reveals it as a movement of stature, on a par with those of its three companions in the cycle. The textures are spare for Raff, and Stadlmair's uncharacteristically moderate tempo emphasises the chill in the material. It's a very pictorial account, snow flurries abound, winds whistle, the climaxes threaten worse weather to come (try 5:35 or 7:17 for example). Although the coda is rather more upbeat, this is an impressively bleak piece of writing by Raff and we should be grateful to Stadlmair for taking such care to present it in the best possible light.
Raff left the succeeding Allegretto untitled. Although snow flurries feature here too,the seasonal colouring seems pasted on to an attractive set of variations. In its modest way it is a showcase for several individual desks in the orchestra and they respond to its challenges with enthusiasm. Stadlmair gives it a more purposeful reading than his colleagues and it benefits from this too. Not great Raff, but charming.
The Larghetto which follows is named after one of those enormous German tiled fireplaces: Am Kamin, but it's difficult to divine just what Raff is portraying here. The initial tempo isn't that different from the preceding Allegretto, but gradually slows into a sort of fast barcarolle, before building to a sustained climax and then moving on. Once again, this isn't one of Raff's best slow movements, but Stadlmair's emphasis on its episodic nature is to its advantage and interest is maintained. It doesn't outstay its welcome.
In the hands of others, the Karneval finale has seemed something of a remorselessly hard driven celebration. Stadlmair takes longer over it than anyone else, and his lightness of touch ensures that its attractions don't pall. There is plenty of variety in the textures and ample variation of both dynamics and tempo within the movement, something sadly missing in Schneider's unimaginative rendition. As with the first movement, Stadlmair gives the finale a stature quite lacking in the performances of Schneider, Venzago and even Albert.
Throughout, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra play their hearts out and their brass and woodwinds in particular deserve praise. The recording has all Tudor's usual warmth and spaciousness, but it's a shame that Ana von Bülow's insert notes are so lightweight and, in places, inaccurate. Overall, though, this issue ranks alongside Stadlmair's accounts of the Symphony No.2 (Tudor 7102 - review) and the Symphony No.4 (Tudor 7113 - review) as being the very best of this generally impressive cycle.
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