I'm not the greatest fan of Raff's music, much as I admire some of it. His style is a little hard to characterize and even in his lifetime he was chastised for being a bit of a magpie, collecting bits and pieces of others' styles, or at least imitating them. Still, during his lifetime he was one of the most renowned composers, spoken of in the same breath as Brahms and Wagner. Further, he was no mere epigone, as some have suggested; rather, he had his own mind and went his own way musically. He even risked getting exiled from Weimar by Liszt and his circle (and this while he was living amongst them) by making some rather harsh criticisms of Wagner's 'Ring' in a famous essay, 'The Wagner Question.' He spent the next few years living in poverty in Wiesbaden before he was chosen to become the director of the newly founded Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfort. These four symphonies were written while he was in Wiesbaden and Frankfort and they were premièred in the former city. They are presented here in the following order, No. 8 'Spring,' No. 10 'Autumn,' No. 9 'Summer and No. 11 'Winter.' Presumably this slightly awkward arrangement has to do with fitting all four symphonies onto two CDs. 'Winter' was not completed and was put away in a drawerby Raff. It was later completed by Ermannsdörfer and it is not clear how much of the symphony represents Raff's own work.
These performances were recorded in 1992-1994, not long before the Philharmonica Hungarica, founded after the 1956 Hungarian uprising by emigré Hungarian musicians and based for almost forty years in Germany, disbanded for financial reasons. They are expertly conducted by Werner Andreas Albert. The sound is variable. In the 8th symphony the sound is somewhat congested with the strings rather too much to the fore. The rest of the symphonies benefit from somewhat better sound, and particularly so in the case of the 9th, which is also the best performance here. Particularly impressive in the 9th are the second and third movements. The fairy music in II ('Die Jagd der Elfen' ['The Elves' Hunt']) is like late-19th century Mendelssohn. III, 'Eclogue,' has gentle winds and strings playing delicate and memorable pastoral melodies. It may be my favorite of all sixteen movements here. The finale is gentle and tightly constructed allegro with some stirring four-horn passages.
Symphony No. 10 'Zur Herbstzeit' ('In Autumn') is notable also for its second and third movements. II is a spooky evocation of ghouls and goblins (Hallowe'en, get it?). III, 'Elegie,' is a lovely adagio. No. 11, the one not completed by Raff, has its strongest movement in I, subtitled 'Der erste Schnee,' ('The First Snow'), with its striking syncopations and an evocation of a bleak but exciting winter storm. II has no subtitle (the only untitled movement in this set of sixteen movements); it has lively antiphonal effects back and forth between the winds and pizzicato strings; there are some nice harmonic twists as well. (The Philharmonic Hungarica plays very well here.)
The good news is that this is being issued a mid-price, essentially two CDs for the price of one. The bad news is that the performances (and sound) are somewhat variable. But there is plenty of good ripe echt-Romantic lusciosity here and if you're one of those who eats that up (and you know who you are!), this may indeed be for you.
TT: CD1 = 76:48; CD2 = 75:35