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Joseph Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Four Overtures to Shakespeare’s plays (1879): The Tempest [13:51]; Othello [8:12]; Macbeth [11:30]; Romeo and Juliet [8:34]

Elegie for Orchestra Op.48 (1879) [7:34]
Fest-Ouverture Op.117 (1864) [15:21]
Bamberger Symphoniker/Hans Stadlmair
rec. Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg, Germany, September 2001, April, December 2002, June 2003. DDD
TUDOR 7128 [65:46]
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Raff was born in Lachen, close to Zurich. Initially a schoolteacher, he worked at his music in private. Largely self-taught, Leipzig publishers started to issue some of Raff’s piano pieces in 1844. The following year the 23 year old composer met Mendelssohn in Leipzig, and agreed to give him lessons. After Mendelssohn’s unexpected death in 1847, Raff went on to work as an assistant to Liszt in Weimar.

He was so trusted by Liszt that he soon was making orchestrations of Liszt’s orchestral pieces, as well as serving as secretary, and copyist. Consequently his experience of the orchestra grew. Whether he was as important to Liszt as he made out is open to question: "I have cleaned up Liszt's first Concerto symphonique for him", he claimed in an early letter from Weimar, "and now I must score and copy ‘Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne’". He announced that the orchestration of Prometheus was his (for the most part) as was that of the symphonic poem, Tasso. The violinist, Joachim, was later to repeat these claims on Raff's behalf. Clearly Liszt needed assistance, which Raff could provide. Tasso, for example, had been written in 1849 and had been originally scored by August Conradi. Liszt was dissatisfied with Conradi’s input and he handed the music to Raff to complete instead. Such is the quality of Raff’s background.

What do we make of Raff’s little known music? Here, the orchestration is certainly to a good standard and has interesting veneers and harmonic undercurrents but melodic inspiration is somewhat lean. The Shakespeare overtures are industrious and atmospheric yet share a certain homogeneity. I decided I would work out which overture was which by listening to them rather than looking at the track-notes. Apart from the first overture, which contained violent storm characteristics clearly attributable to either The Tempest or Macbeth, I found that I was right in my choice. Othello proved to be the most difficult tone poem to follow, yet after reading its production note I could associate with Raff’s construction of the piece. The Romeo and Juliet overture falls appealingly on the ear with its gentle romanticism given by lightly textured wind passages. 

Of the works represented, the finest is the Fest-Ouverture. This long, stirring piece is quite wonderful and illuminates with a sparkling energy that makes it a memorable listening experience. Little about it is given in the notes apart from telling us that it was planned as a tribute to King Karl von Wurtemberg. To me, its allegro is quite stunning.

The orchestra (established in 1949) plays with competence and warmth. Hans Stadlmair is no stranger to this music having been educated in Vienna. Stuttgart has been his home for forty years as artistic director to the Munchener Kammerorchester. The pace he sets for this Raff disc is appropriately energetic and he usefully picks up some of the nuances of the score that might otherwise be missed.

The notes in German, English and French are adequate, but little is said in the two short paragraphs on the Elegie and Fest-Ouverture. Incidentally, we learn that Raff composed six operas all of which are unknown - the last three not even published.

Raymond Walker 

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