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Wonderful entertainment from a master craftsman.,
This review is from: Raff: Suite for Piano & Orchestra, & other orchestral works (Audio CD)
The Swiss composer Joachim Raff (1822-1882) was very much a craftsman composer; some of his music has a manufactured air about it. He was never short of a tune but they can be rather four-square and not really memorable, at least at first. He was also not capable of plumbing any depths of emotion. However, once you accept these limitations, Raff's music has a great deal to offer. He was a superb technician who was always working away at his material. There is always something to listen to in a piece by Raff (counterpoint was a speciality) and you may surprise yourself at how often you return to his music. If you find yourself getting bitten by the Raff bug there is a lively website devoted to him and other "unsung" composers you may wish to investigate.
The "Suite for Piano and Orchestra" Op. 200 dates from 1875 and is here receiving its first recording. It is a substantial five movement work of nearly 40 minutes. As so often with Raff, it is tuneful, lucidly and ingeniously constructed and thoroughly entertaining. The orchestration is clean and colourful and the piano writing is very much in the tradition of Mendelssohn. The movements are given Baroque labels (an "Introduction and Fugue", "Menuett", "Gavotte and Musette" and "Cavatina" lead to the "Finale") but there is no attempt at pastiche. Among many felicities, notice how the fugue subject of the opening movement which is heard in inversion later in the movement (the first time is at 4 mins 34 secs) features in both forms as contrasting material in the finale. As you would expect from Raff, the finale's piano cadenza manages to incorporate melodic references to all of the preceding movements. I thought the loveliest melody in the suite to be the horn-led central section of the "Menuett".
The rest of this disc is made up of orchestral excerpts from Raff's operas, several of which were never performed in his lifetime. At nearly 15 minutes, by far the most substantial is the overture to "King Alfred". It is a splendid piece which features a "patriotic" melody, some exciting battle music and a catchy, if surprisingly lightweight, march. There is an effective development section before the piece ends resplendently with a full statement of the main theme.
The overture to "Dornroschen" ("Sleeping Beauty") is less strong melodically though it certainly conjures up an appropriate atmosphere, employing a solo violin to conclude most poetically. The piece depicting the thorn hedge is a busy moto perpetuo in the style of Mendelssohn.
The overture to Raff's last opera "Die Eifersuchtigen" ("The Jealous Ones") is a sonata structure complete with introduction. Mendelssohn's influence is again apparent. It is attractive without being truly memorable.
The disc concludes with the prelude to Act 3 of "Samson", a retelling of the biblical story which predates Saint-Saens' popular opera by many years. This is simply an exquisite melody for a solo violin which is then repeated by the massed strings.
These are fine performances which have been well recorded. The British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen is a splendidly fluent soloist in the suite. The Norrlands opera orchestra's lower strings do sound rather thin at times and it is easy to imagine how Raff's tunes would have benefited from a warmer and fuller sound but don't let this small reservation put you off investigating a disc which is brimful of delightful music.