Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Piano Works 1
Frühlingsboten, op.55 (1850-52) [35:30]
Drei Klavier-Soli, op.74 (1852) [29:08]
Fantaisie in B, WoO.15a (c.1850-52) [12:09]
Tra Nguyen (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 28-29 January 2011. DDD
GRAND PIANO GP602 [76:47] 

This is the first volume of a three-CD survey of German-Swiss composer Joachim Raff's piano music by British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen on HNH/Naxos's new Grand Piano label. The second is already available (GP612 - see review) with the third due out later this year.
Raff wrote a massive amount of piano music, so this is a long way from being a 'complete works' series, but it does give a taster of the considerable genius of a composer long subject to the ill-conceived edicts of critics past, prejudiced by that prolific production, which extended to other genres, and by the many potboilers and pretty salon pieces written to earn a living.
This is Nguyen's debut solo recording, but she has made two chamber CDs with the German clarinettist Sabine Grofmeier and, more relevantly, two more with the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera under Roland Kluttig for the Swedish label Sterling (CDS10852, CDS10892). In those recordings she performs Raff's Suite for piano and orchestra op.200 and his Die Tagezeiten op.209, a massive Beethovenesque extravaganza for piano, choir and orchestra. Her own belief in Raff is further signalled by the fact that she regularly performs his music - her 2012 calendar reveals six different recitals in England, all featuring pieces by Raff. In April at Pushkin House in London she gave a recital combined with a talk on his music.
Her generous programme of premiere recordings begins with Frühlingsboten (Harbingers of Spring), made up of twelve short character pieces, two to four minutes in length. These are lovely Schumannesque items, Romantically fragranced and poetic, evocative and varied.
All three works on the CD date from a time when Raff was living with Liszt as a member of his household - as his amanuensis, to be precise. There is more of Liszt's influence detectable in the attractively nostalgic and very lively Fantaisie WoO.15a, a work which disappeared for over 150 years before being unearthed among some organ works of Liszt's at the Nederlands Muziek Instituut in 2010.
Between these two works lie the Three Piano Solos op.74, one of three opuses Raff dedicated to the famous conductor and one-time son-in-law of Liszt, Hans von Bülow, who had befriended him a few years previously, and who went on to become one of his most enthusiastic advocates and devoted friends. These are more or less three separate works: a moody andantino Ballade in G, a high-octane presto Scherzo in A minor and a complex set of variations in A flat entitled Metamorphosen. Taken as a whole they are showcases of considerable virtuosity, skill and confidence, and when Bülow gave the premiere of Metamorphosen in 1859, Raff's renown and reputation were assured.
Raff's piano music lies somewhere between Beethoven and Liszt in character, spirit, harmonically - fashioned intellectually but emotionally layered and highly entertaining. Nguyen is clearly aware of Raff's historical lineage and imbues his music with what seems like the perfect dynamic of energy, drama, light and pathos. Her excellent technique and expressive flexibility - for example, demonstrating restraint where another might turn to melodrama - combine to produce interpretations that will long serve as a yardstick against which future performers must measure themselves.
Sound quality is very good, warm and intimate, yet still spacious. There is a slight bias towards the left channel, but it is fairly minimal. In the second of the Three Piano Solos there is a mysterious faint crackling in the same channel, but it comes and goes and is barely noticeable. The English-German booklet notes by Mark Thomas of the invaluable Joachim Raff Society are extensive, detailed and well-written. Nguyen's biography, in contrast, is rather on the concise side.
There is no need to wait for volume 3, incidentally, for more of Raff's piano music - Genesis recently released veteran American soloist Adrian Ruiz's account of the Grande Sonate in E flat minor, op.14 and the Piano Suite in D minor, op.91 (GCD118). Apart from Ruiz's fine playing and Raff's thrilling music, the disc is remarkable for the fact that Ruiz made the two recordings an incredible forty years apart - both for Genesis.
Collected reviews and contact at
Interpretations that will long serve as a yardstick against which future performers must measure themselves.