Grand Piano GP655

CD Reviews: Raff Piano Works vol.6

"Raff Piano Works vol.6" - Six Poèmes Op.15, Fantaisie Op.142, Barcarolle Op.143, Romance & Valse brillante Op.169, Erinerrung an Venedig Op.187
Tra Nguyen, piano
Grand Piano GP655 2015 78:24

With this CD Tra Nguyen's series of recordings of Raff's piano music for Naxos' Grand Piano label at last reaches its conclusion, and what an enriching and rewarding journey it has been. Nguyen's object has not been to present an exhaustive "complete piano works", something which would require another 30 CDs or so, but rather to present a selection of what she judges to be the best of Raff's very considerable catalogue for the instrument.

I'm going to waste little time praising Nguyen. She has demonstrated her peerless qualities as a Raff interpreter more than enough times now for me to be able to simply refer you to my other reviews of her many performances elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that she has the technique to seem to make light of the substantial pianistic demands which Raff makes of her, together with the emotional intelligence and the poetic imagination to lift the music off the page and into our hearts. It really is a joy to hear "unknown" music played with such conviction and subtlety.

The music itself is another varied and satisfying programme. The set of six pieces in the Erinerrung an Venedig (Souvenir of Venice) set are mature Raff, so some of the pieces are more elliptical than others - the opening Gondoliera is an unexpectedly dark piece for example, but Am Rialto is the upbeat, busy picture you'd expect and Taubenfütterung (Feeding the Pigeons) has all the fluttering one could want. More than being mere picture postcard music, though, this set has real musical substance, with the Gondoliera and the Canzone in particular being especially satisfying as absolute music.

The other set on the disc, the Six Poèmes, are very much earlier, dating from 1845. Raff had yet to fully absorb the varied influences on his style, so there is plenty of Mendelssohn and Schumann on display, plus the odd piquant touch of Liszt. Nonetheless, these are gorgeous pieces, choc-full of grateful melody and packed with heart-on-sleeve emotion. For the most part the pace is moderate and the atmosphere that familiar Raff one of yearning and scarcely-suppressed regret, although the third and six Poèmes are more lively and upbeat. Although not as polished as Raff's later works, these pieces by the 23 year old composer have poetry in abundance.

The most impressive work in this compilation is the Fantaisie Op.142. Nguyen gave us another Fantaisie (WoO.15A) in the first CD in this series, but this later piece (it dates from 1867) is a very different and much more substantial work. Nguyen brings out its arching structure within which the contrasting lyrical and tumultuous passages compete. It is built from a simple four note motif, which recurs throughout it, and Nguyen invests the work a certain nobility, as if in it Raff was illustrating life's struggles. It's a really grand piece, worthy of taking its place amongst the best of Raff's work.

The Barcarolle and two Op.169 pieces are lighter, but by no means shallow fare. Nguyen relaxes into music in which Raff sets out to charm and both succeed admirably. In Nguyen's reading the central section of the Romance hints just enough at darkness, but the mood soon passes, like light cloud momentarily obscuring the sun. The Valse, though, is all lightness, and the Barcarolle oozes lazy pleasure.

This a very strong and satisfying programme with which to conclude this magnificent series, and my only misgiving is that it is indeed the last disc. What a debt Raff enthusiasts owe Nguyen and Grand Piano.

Mark Thomas
October 2017

All six CDs in this series are now also available in a box set:

Box set

Tra Nguyen talks about Raff Piano Works vol.6 and the boxed set of all six CDs:

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