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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor, Op.77 (1855) [38:17]
String Quartet No.7 in D major, ‘Die schöne Müllerin(‘The beautiful maid of the mill’) Op.192/b (1874) [30:35]
Quartetto di Milano
rec. Telos Studios, Mechernich-Floisdorf, Germany, 6-7 Nov 1998 (Op. 77), 13-14 Feb 1999 (Op. 192/b) DDD
TUDOR 7079 [68:56]


Joachim Raff is a greatly under-regarded romantic composer whose string quartets provide a treasure trove of discovery. The enterprising Swiss-based Tudor label continue their strenuous efforts for the composer’s rehabilitation. Their catalogue includes a fine recording of two of Raff’s quartets that earned considerable praise when initially released in 2000.

A quick glance at the number of compositions that Swiss-born Raff wrote, shows just how prolific he was. Raff, who adopted Germany as his home country, wrote over three hundred works almost half of which were solo piano pieces mainly intended for the salon. Virtually all the opus numbers prior to the Symphony No.1 in D ‘To the Fatherland’ op.96 in 1863 were for solo piano. The music lies midway between Mendelssohn’s gentle romanticism of old world classical form and refinement and the poetic modernism of Liszt and Wagner.

In his day Raff was considered one of the foremost three German composers, behind Wagner and Brahms. Raff’s relative popularity in part of the second half of the nineteenth century waned considerably after his death and very little of his music was played for the next hundred years. The subsequent obscurity of his works remains unmerited, for his distinctive music, as displayed on this Tudor release, is of the highest quality. Thankfully, record labels such as Tudor; Marco Polo, AK Coburg and CPO are making inroads to bring the music to a wider audience. There is however a long way to go before the talents of Raff become more accepted. For example in one the foremost guides to Compact Discs, Mendelssohn has in the region of 150 entries, Brahms has around 260 and Raff has no entries.

The catalogue of Raff’s works after 1856, when he departed the coterie of Franz Liszt in the musical hotbed of Vienna for the relative calm of Wiesbaden, reveals a classicist return to time-honoured formal concepts as far as his choice of genre was concerned. Although Raff had composed the first of his eight string quartets while still in Vienna, most of his symphonies, his concertos and the remaining chamber music ranging from the Duo to the Octet, were composed in Wiesbaden, in Germany.

At the beginning of the 1870s Raff was among those composers whose works were most often performed in German-speaking countries. He admirably satisfied the public demand of the times and promptly published one eagerly awaited work after another.

The confident and highly lyrical String Quartet No.1 in D minor was composed in Vienna, in 1850. The four movement score has a nocturnal atmosphere achieved by beautifully arranged instrumentation and romantic expression. Greatly indebted to the late Beethoven quartets there is much to remind one of Brahms who incidentally at that time had yet to compose a work for strings alone.

The exciting and dramatic elements of the first movement are expertly captured by the Milano Quartet and the frenzied scherzo-like second movement is performed with substantial control. On my copy there was a brief but uncomfortable blaring at point 6.03-6.05 (track 1) which rather spoiled my enjoyment. The players are more than equal to the demands of the astonishing slow movement, with its orchestral dimensions, dissonances, frictions and delays, as were later to appear in the works of Wolf and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The final movement - exhilaratingly performed by the Milano Quartet - is a complex tangle of contrapuntal motifs; a fantastic cavalcade that might have originated in a Schubertian fever.

Helene Raff in the biography of her father maintained that the String Quartet No.7 ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ was the most popular of all Raff’s quartets. Apart from using the same title as Schubert’s 1823 song cycle ‘Die schöne Müllerin there is no other clear connection. The score is overflowing with refinement and charm but rather wanting in ardour and adventure; a viewpoint that was also often levelled at Mendelssohn’s scores. The quartet eschews the traditional sonata form and was described by Raff as a ‘cyclical tone poem’. It also fits the category of a ‘suite’ as it is clearly divided into three large movements, entitled: ‘The young man’, ‘The maid of the mill’ and the ‘Prenuptial party’ interspersed with three shorter pieces in the form of interludes.

The Quartetto di Milano are convincing throughout in a work that is memorable for its mainly gentle pastoral moods and textures. The opening movement marked allegretto skips along merrily despite one or two moments of less than seamless playing. In the second movement allegro the interlude ‘The mill’ the picture of the rushing stream is marvellously evoked. There is excellent playing in the melancholy slow movement ‘The maid of the mill’ which is lovingly portrayed. The fourth movement entitled ‘Restlessness’ is striding and airy, performed with an underlying suggestion of menace. The penultimate movement ‘Declaration’ which passionately portrays the two lovers comes as a welcome relief. The finale represents a party at the eve of the wedding and here again there is confident and ebullient playing.

The Mannheim String Quartet also recorded the String Quartet No.7 Die schöne Müllerin’, at Baden-Baden in 2003, on CPO 777 003-2 c/w String Quartet No.6 in C minor, ‘Suite in older form’ Op.192/a. Both versions are well performed and will provide satisfaction.

This splendid recording will delight enthusiasts of chamber music and will undoubtedly win Raff many new friends. An impressively performed and agreeably presented release from the Tudor label.

Michael Cookson

 



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