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Joseph Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor Op.77 (1855) [38:17]
String Quartet No.7 in D major Op.192 No.2 Die Schöne Müllerin (1874) [30:35]
Quartetto di Milano
rec. November 1998 (No.1) and February 1999 (No.7), Telos-Studio, Mechernich
TUDOR 7079 [68:56]

Experience Classicsonline

Tudor is the principal ‘keeper of the flame’ when it comes to Raff performances on disc, though CPO is doing excellent work too, as are – to a somewhat lesser extent – a few other companies. This coupling is not new, having been recorded back in 1998-99, but it certainly warrants another look given that no newcomer has arrived, to my knowledge, to supplant it.
The First Quartet is a mellifluous work, written in 1855 when the composer was in his early thirties. There are rich viola lines and a delicious role for the first violin whose lyrical energies are deployed to marvellous effect. This melodic writing emerges from an initial romanticised haze but the subsequent development is strenuous, finely distributed between the four voices and returns cyclically to the mood of the initial withdrawn intimacy as the opening movement concludes. Thereafter we are treated to a fleet Mendelssohnian Scherzo and a flowingly intense slow movement, with hints of late Beethoven. There are also a few dissonant anticipations of music to come. The finale has Schubertian inheritance but sufficient independence of spirit and character not to become swamped.
Nearly twenty years later Raff had reached the seventh of his quartets. It was subtitled Die Schöne Müllerin though it has nothing to do with Schubert. In point of fact the Seventh is a sort of quartet-suite, written in six movements lasting about half an hour. Each movement is given a descriptive title – The Young Man, The Mill, The Maid of the Mill and so on – but one can listen blind as it were and not suffer any loss. The expectancy of the cello’s initial paragraphs announces a narrative of some kind however. The animation that follows has fine energy; along the way, at a few points, it reminded me of Mendelssohn’s Octet. The Mill’s motion is finely captured; the rhythm is brisk, purposeful, regular and amusing. The romantic reverie that is The Maid is strongly etched and the bustling scherzo adds balance. Raff dispenses one of his charmingly uncomplicated Andantinos before unleashing the high spirits of the finale.
The earlier work is the more questing and finely conceived, it must be noted. The Raff of 1874 was perhaps a little too inclined to spin generous pastoral evocations. The D minor work, on the contrary, played creatively with dissonance and cyclical mood, and brisk contrasts, and is the more complete statement.
The Quartetto di Milano are good advocates, relishing the intimacies they’re granted as well as the more bustling aspects of the music, though they don’t offer the last word in sheer refinement. The recording is good too. There’s no competition for this coupling of early and late quartets by Raff.
Jonathan Woolf

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