Chandos CHAN 5315
Chandos CHAN 5315

CD Reviews: Symphony No.2 etc.

Symphony No.5 Lenore Op.177, König Alfred Overture WoO.14, Dame Kobold Overture Op.154, Die Eifersüchtigen Overture WoO.54, Dornröschen Prelude WoO.19 and Abends-Rhasodie Op.163b
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Conductor: Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 5315 2014 DDD SACD 80:02

It's a continuing pleasure to have such a world class conductor as Järvi, with such a top flight orchestra as L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, focus on Raff's major orchestral works. The first CD in this series from Chandos brought us revalatory, mould-breaking performances of the Symphony No.2 and the four Shakespeare Preludes, so there was every reason to expect that Järvi's interpretation of Lenore would be as impressively revealling.

After my first experience of Järvi's uniformly brisk tempi I was applauding his interpretation as a breath of fresh air, and as revealing and definitive as his performnace of the Second Symphony, but repeated hearings have dented that surge of enthusiasm and I am less convinced that it is the benchmark reading of the work. There's no denying that overall he gets nearer than anyone else to Raff's indicated tempi, and these are very much faster than anything which we've heard before on disc: Järvi's Lenore takes 39:56 compared with Herrmann's 56:27. Only in the slow movement is he substantially quicker than Raff's metronome indication and here, despite the fact that he takes it 16% faster than Raff indicated, it doesn't seem to be too fast; the music can take it. It doesn't sound rushed, the phrasing doesn't lose definition, the contrast with the movements either side is maintained and, if anything, its descriptive role in the work as "love music" is enhanced. The third movement march is certainly very fast, but it's bang on Raff's tempo, and this shifts the piece into the recognisable territory of a "traditional" Raff scherzo. It's an interesting phenomenon, this newly revealed march/scherzo, and one which works, particularly as the speed somehow offsets the rather literal palindromic design. Järvi is again almost on the nail in the finale, and this is a hugely successful and exciting reading. Personally, I would prefer that he slowed the final chorale a la Hermann, but I have to accept that that's not what Raff wrote.

My main misgiving about Järvi's interpretation, therefore, is the first movement. This is only slightly faster than the metronome marking but, although I am quite happy with the 16% relative speed up in the slow movement, this doesn't feel right. I'd like to be more scientific about it, but I can't. In places, and particularly the very opening bars, even the fine orchestra that Järvi' has at his disposal only just about manages to keep up, the phrasing of strings and woodwind sometimes suffering in the process. To my mind, Järvi is simply too much of a speed merchant here and Stadlmair, himself substantially faster than Herrmann, manages to combine clarity and expansiveness with that all-important characteristic of a Raff first movement: propulsive momentum. 

So overall, much as I want to, I can't regard Järvi's as the definitive Lenore, a status which I gladly accord to his reading of the Second Symphony.  One has to accept that he comes closest, at least in terms of tempi, to the literal score of Lenore and in that sense at least it is a perfectly valid interpretation, but for me Stadmair gets closest to the spirit of the opening movement and, for all his relative slowness in the other movements, his is just as valid a view of the work. All that said, we shouldn't forget that Lenore is a programme symphony. Bürger's ballade Lenore is a gothic horror story, filled with blasphemy, death and ghoulish apparitions, and one great plus of Järvi's interpretation is that he drops you straight into that fevered, frantic atmosphere - you're not in the real world from the very start. He establishes that atmosphere and, because the pace never slackens, it just intensifies until one reaches the catastrophe of the final movement. I know of no other performance which has this appropriately nightmarish quality.

The "fillers" on this CD are substantial fare in their own right: three opera overtures, the Prelude to Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) and the Abends-Rhapsodie. The two latter, essentially slow, pieces are glowingly played by the Swiss Romande orchestra, and Järvi (and Chandos' sound engineering) brings out much more detail in their orchestration than either Kluttig (Dornröschen) or Stadlmair did. He also shaves off getting on for a quarter of the duration of each piece, without either ever sounding rushed or inappropriately fast. The Lisztian central climax of the Dornröschen Prelude in particular is a gorgeous moment under Järvi's baton. 

Järvi's overall timings for the overtures to the comic operas Dame Kobold and Die Eifersüchtigen pretty much match those of Stadlmair and Kluttig respectively, but in each case he slows the introduction more and then seems to be just that bit faster in the succeeding Allegros, to tremendous effect. The articulation and rhythmic vivacity of the orchestra in these mainly fast pieces makes for joyous listening - these are by far the best performances we have of these very attractive works. The big König Alfred Overture is a much more varied and dramatic piece, built from a solemn chorale, a perky march and battle music. Järvi is much better than Kluttig in moulding these episodic elements into a convincing whole, transforming what appeared from the Sterling issue to be an impressive, but arguably ramshackle, construction into a much tauter and dramatically convincing one. Needless to say, in the process he cuts the timing from almost 15 minutes to under 14.

In short, as with vol.1, the smaller pieces in this second release from Chandos receive just as mould-breaking performances as does the Symphony which they accompany. All the more pity that vol.3 won't be recorded until October 2015, and so we'll have to wait until 2016 for more revelatory Raff.

Sonically, of course, Järvi is in a class of his own, and Raff's skills as an orchestrator have never had a better showcase. I should also put in a brief word for Avrohom Leichtling's superb booklet essay, which is a miracle of musicological erudition, given the small compass within which he had to work.

Mark Thomas
May 2014

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