Sterling CDS 1089
Sterling CDS 1089

CD Reviews: Works for Choir, Piano & Orchestra

Concertante: Die Tageszeiten for choir, piano & orchestra op.209, Cantata: Die Sterne WoO.53, Morgenlied and Einer Entschlafenen op.186
Sångkraft Chamber Choir; Tra Nguyen, piano; Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera, Umeå, conducted by Andrea Quinn.

Sterling CDS 1089 2010 DDD 79:52

Sheer joy. That is my two-word summary of this life-enhancing new CD of choral/orchestral music by Raff on Bo Hyttner’s questing Sterling label.

The major work on the CD is Die Tageszeiten, which Raff called a ‘Concertante’, but which is actually a forty one-minute hybrid work, combining the concepts of symphony (it is in four movements), concerto (here, for piano) and oratorio (the choir commenting on the shifting aspects of day and night). Its forebears are such works as Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Haydn’s The Seasons.

The text which Raff set in this work is by his 17 year-old daughter, Helene: it is a 4-part sequence of well-written, but essentially naïve stanzas which describe bucolic scenes during day and night and the impressions made by them. On their own, their value as poetry is slight; when set to music, however, the result is a delightful innocence and freshness which are superbly conveyed in this premiere recording.

The first movement, which describes an idyllic daytime country scene, opens with a lengthy piano solo, brilliantly brought off by Tra Nguyen, and continues with a happy dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra – here the alert-sounding Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera, Sweden, conducted with real understanding of Raff’s delicate idiom by Andrea Quinn. All is kept wonderfully buoyant and bright. When the Sångkraft Chamber Choir enters, one might at first find their contribution somewhat lightweight, but as the music progresses, one appreciates their compact, but gleaming tone and their part in keeping everything to scale. This is Raff, after all, not Brahms!

Listen to an audio extract This example is from near the end of Die Tageszeiten's first movement, showing the integration of choir, piano and orchestra to good effect [2:47]
 

The second movement Andante, on the subject of evening, begins with the beautifully hushed tones of strings and choir, but soon goes on to explore a wider range of emotions than we have encountered to this point. Particularly attractive is the rippling accompaniment of the piano in the closing moments of the movement, so sensitively played by Tra Nguyen. The overall effect is of ethereal other-worldliness interrupted by occasional darker thoughts which are then soon dispelled.

With the third movement, we are in different psychological territory. Suddenly, a creepy-sounding Allegro steals up on us as the text deals with the capacity of the night to counter and cool various troublesome human emotional states. The movement ends with the piano rippling its way into a final quiet comment by the choir.

The finale, also Allegro, begins with the dismissal of the night as a new day dawns. And so we return to the carefree mood of the opening movement, but now there is a greater sense of the integration of the three protagonists – piano, orchestra and choir – and overall a more heightened sense of rejoicing. What a life-affirming work this is! And how sensitively it is performed here by all concerned! Miss Nguyen and Miss Quinn have put us all in their debt.

A contrasting pair of short works for choir and orchestra follows. The first, Morgenlied, a setting of a poem by Johann Georg Jacobi, describes a new day in warm, majestic tones – and again, the performance preserves a due sense of Raffian intimacy while expanding magnificently at the climaxes. Wonderful. The second piece, Einer Entschlafenen, (text by Arnold Börner) is quite different: this is a peace-filled send-off sung to the soul of a woman who has just passed away, the music eventually rising to glorious heights before the quiet ending.

Listen to an audio extract This example is from the second half of the fourth movement of Die Sterne, showcasing the glorious melody on which Raff bases the movement [2:31]
 

The final work on the CD is the five-movement cantata for choir and orchestra, Die Sterne, which is essentially a free treatment of ideas associated with the subject of stars. The text is again by Helene Raff, written under the pseudonym of Helge Heldt.

This is another beautiful work, with a great variety of moods explored both within the movements and when comparing one movement with another. It holds the attention throughout and continually delights the ear. A good idea of the range of moods depicted can be gained from the third movement which seems to oscillate between straightforward diatonic material and more slithery chromaticism. However, by far the most gorgeous music is contained in the fourth movement which begins with an absolutely inspired melody for French horn, accompanied at first by strings, but with the later addition of clarinets. One is tempted to argue that the CD is worth its purchase price for this movement alone! The fifth and final movement brings the work to another joyous, this time almost hymn-like conclusion.

The recording quality throughout the CD is finely tuned to Raff’s writing: the acoustic is sufficient to enable the big climaxes to expand while at the same time permitting no undue inflation of the music.

Full texts and translations are included with this release which is further distinguished by expert analysis of the music by Avrohom Leichtling, to whom the present writer is greatly indebted for material for this review. Thoroughly and enthusiastically recommended!

Alan Howe

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