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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Piano Works 2
Fantasie-Sonate, op.168 (1871) [15:25]
Variationen über ein Originalthema, op.179 (1873) [26:39]
Vier Klavierstücke, op.196 (1875) [19:03]
Tra Nguyen (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 25-26 June 2011. DDD
GRAND PIANO GP612 [63:07] 

Experience Classicsonline

This is the second 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 first (GP602) came out just a few months before the present, with the third due out in November and promising more world premieres. 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 hounded by critics fixated on equating prolific production with mediocrity and distracted by the many potboilers and pretty salon pieces he wrote to earn a living.
This is Nguyen's debut solo recording but she has made two CDs 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 evidenced by the fact that her 2012 diary reveals six different recitals in England, all featuring pieces by Raff. In April 2012 at Pushkin House in London she gave a recital combined with a talk on his music.
In terms of minutes, volume 2 is less generous by a fifth, but when it comes to the music, this CD is every bit as grand as the first. Two out of the three items in Nguyen's recital are premiere recordings, the Fantasie-Sonate having been done once before by the Bulgarian pianist Valentina Seferinova on the unlikely-sounding Cahoots Classical label in 2002 (CAH 001, reissued in 2007 by Cameo Classics CC9024CD).
Nguyen begins with that work. For this volume she has moved on twenty or twenty-five years from the last, and Raff's music has receded from the earlier influence of Liszt - a doffing of his hat to his one-time mentor in the Variations aside - to effuse an aura of great maturity, nowhere more so than in the Fantasie-Sonate. Thus into a cogent, warmly lyrical whole Raff melds philosophical reflection with passages of drama that are elfish rather than highfalutin. Located somewhere on the Beethoven-Brahms Sonata axis, this is a small but perfectly formed masterpiece that should immediately be taken up by pianists everywhere.
The Variations are a huge work, consisting of an opening andante followed by the original theme - barely recognisable subsequently - and twenty variations of great variety and a four-minute moderato maestoso finale. Raff's Three Piano Solos op.74, featured on volume 1, ended with a fulgent set of variations entitled Metamorphosen, the piece with which, after Hans von Bülow gave the premiere in 1859, Raff's name was finally made. Raff evidently had a flair for the variations form and wrote several sets throughout his life. This work may be like no other of any kind from the 19th century, in that all the movements except the finale are written in quintuple and septuple metres, or what a critic of the time called "an almost impossible rhythm". It is unlikely that modern listeners will be troubled by it, but there is a perceptible rhythmic exoticism running through the work that only enhances the kaleidoscopic expo of variations with which Raff beguiles and impresses.
The four piano pieces united by Raff to form his op.196 are genial miniatures of the type that pompous critics of the 19th century would heedlessly label 'salon pieces', dismissing at a stroke of the nib pen the invention and poetry that has gone into them. The opening 'Im Schilf' ('In the Reeds') is beautifully evocative of a summer breeze caressing the water, and the gentle Berceuse, lively Novelette and wistful Impromptu all follow in a similar vein: delightfully atmospheric, technically imaginative, aromatically lyrical and attractively self-confident. There is no sign of the "stormy" or "solemn" passages promised by the notes in the Novelette, or anywhere else.
Once again, Nguyen proves, throughout her recital, not only equal to the technical demands of the intellectual intrigues that lurk everywhere in Raff's music, but also that she has an intuitive sense of expression and phrasing that brings to life the substantial emotional content of symbols on staves, thus rendering this survey the gold standard by which future performers of Raff will be judged.
Sound quality is very good, warm and intimate, if perhaps a shade too bright. The slight bias towards the left channel in volume 1 has been corrected. Once again the English-German booklet notes by Mark Thomas of the invaluable Joachim Raff Society are extensive, detailed and well-written. Nguyen's biography is as before, but there is a new photo, in which she has every reason to smile.
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