on 23 March 2014
Before the First World War Raff's "Lenore" Symphony was regularly performed but subsequently nearly all of his works disappeared from the concert hall. In 1970, however, Bernard Herrmann (the composer of the music for "Psycho" as well as many other films) recorded the "Lenore" Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at his own expense. Herrmann rightly declared it "one of the finest examples of the Romantic Programme School....it deserves a place alongside the "Symphonie Fantastique" of Berlioz, Liszt's "Faust" symphony and Tchaikovsky's "Manfred". In recent years, several other conductors have revived the "Lenore" symphony on disc.
The symphony is in four movements divided into three parts. The story, taken from Burger's ballad, tells of Lenore who curses God and wishes for death when she believes that her lover, Wilhelm, a soldier, has been killed. That night she hears the sound of horses' hooves and her lover calling so that they can be reunited. Lenore mounts the horse and they gallop into the night. They come across a funeral procession and enter a graveyard. The horseman's uniform disintegrates and his body becomes a skeleton. The horse disappears from under Lenore and she is left in an open grave to battle between life and death.
The first part ( "Love's Bliss") consists of the first two movements. The first, a thrusting allegro, represents Wilhelm while the second, an andante quasi larghetto, depicts Lenore's tender feelings for her lover. The central section is particularly impassioned and almost Mahlerian in its intensity. The second part is entitled "Separation" and consists of a march representing the army on its way to war. Be warned: this is, perhaps, Raff's most indelible tune. It will haunt you always...not inappropriately perhaps! The final part ("Reunited in Death") begins with a section recalling themes from earlier movements. Then the wild ride begins. The strings repeat a galloping rhythm for page after page while, again, music from earlier in the symphony is recalled. The symphony concludes with a chorale whose accompanying woodwind chords dissolve upwards, bringing to mind, as Dr Avrohom Leichtling points out in his booklet note, the end of Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra".
The "Lenore" Symphony represents a fascinating synthesis of the style of the early German Romantics and that of the new music of Liszt and Wagner. It is a truly splendid piece, vivid, melodic and compelling. Do not overlook it. (I would suggest you then proceed to the third and fourth symphonies and the enormously entertaining piano concerto.)
Neeme Jarvi's new recording has caused considerable consternation amongst those Raffians who learned the piece from Herrmann's recording since Jarvi's speeds are considerably faster, especially in the first and second movements. Indeed, Jarvi dispatches the work in just under 40 minutes while Herrmann takes 56 1/2. From Raff's metronome markings and contemporary timings it seems that Jarvi's reading is closer to Raff's intentions but, if you know the symphony already, you will be more than a little startled. I personally find both views satisfying but, if I had to choose, I would now opt for the new recording. The extra thrust of Jarvi's performance compensates for a reading which is, momentarily at least, less intense. Another performance worth considering and one whose tempi sit comfortably between the two extremes is given by Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on Tudor. This is excellently played and recorded but not quite as vividly characterised.
An interesting feature of the symphony Dr Leichtling mentions is that all four movements are effectively in one tempo. Raff creates this effect by precisely specifying metronome marks and by doubling or halving note values when the tempo appears to change. Jarvi observes Raff's wishes. To give one example, there is no slackening of the pulse at the arrival of the transitional woodwind material before the second subject in the first movement. Stadlmair slows down noticeably at this point. This does not mean that there is no ebb and flow in Jarvi's performance; it is most subtly moulded. However, the symphony undoubtedly benefits from this extra degree of unification.
Jarvi's well-filled disc also includes a number of operatic overtures. The overture to "Dame Kobold", a comic opera, opens the disc. Modelled on Rossini's overtures, even down to including a crescendo passage, it is melodically strong, light as a feather and totally captivating. The "King Alfred" overture is also a fine work though the march tune it includes seems oddly lightweight. The overture to "Die Eifersuchtigen" ("The Jealous Ones"), an opera which has never been performed, lacks a striking lyrical idea and the prelude to "Dornroschen" ("Sleeping Beauty") is poetic but again thin melodically. On the other hand, a short rhapsody, "Abends", is attractively lyrical. (Several of these fillers are also included on an indispensable Sterling disc which includes the only recording of Raff's Suite for piano and orchestra.)
The Suisse Romande is obviously in fine fettle these days. All the music is splendidly performed and recorded and I can give this disc an enthusiastic recommendation. Whatever you do, don't miss the "Lenore" Symphony!