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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Grande Sonate in E flat minor, op.14 (1881 version) [29:43]
Piano Suite in D minor, op.91 (1859) [38:02]
Adrian Ruiz (piano)
rec. 1971 (Suite); c.2011 (Sonata). DDD
GENESIS GCD118 [67:45]

Experience Classicsonline

A double-take at the recording dates would not be out of place for this new addition to the growing discography of German-Swiss composer Joachim Raff, finally emerging from the cerement thrown over him by the ill-conceived edicts of critics past, prejudiced by his prolific production and by the many potboilers and pretty salon pieces Raff wrote to earn a living and keep fans loyal. An incredible forty years after his memorable recording for Genesis of Raff's massive Piano Suite in D minor (GS 1009), US pianist Adrian Ruiz has returned to the studios - for the same label - to record the equally impressive Grande Sonate op.14, published here with a digitally re-mastered re-release of the Suite.
A leading music magazine referred to the Baroque-modelled Piano Suite at the time in typically patronising terms: "There is more life in this music than might be expected. All four movements are steadily inventive but, of course, without the individuality of a major composer. [...] structural processes being unoriginal yet fully effective. [...] A mildly interesting sidelight...". In fact that reviewer could hardly be more wrong, and thankfully dismissive views like his are becoming rarer, as more and more of Raff's music is made available to the public for estimation. Nowadays, for example, two cycles of Raff's complete (eleven) Symphonies have been recorded, most recently on Tudor (CD 1600), and previously on Marco Polo in the 1990s. Naxos now stand in the shoes of Marco Polo and a box-set download of that set is available on 9.40248. Naxos began to reissue the original CDs a decade ago, but apparently gave up after two volumes (8.555411, 8.555491).
Ruiz's was the first and is now the fourth recording of the Suite, Raff's fourth of seven, following Morton Estrin (Newport NCD 60067), Andrea Carnevalli (Phoenix PH 99508) and Alexander Zolotarev (AK Coburg DR0009). Ruiz himself plays with great poise and no small amount of poetic feeling, giving the work an special aura that is not undeserved. The New Grove dictionary, by the way, erroneously gives the tonality as D major.
Raff's first Piano Sonata was an early work, given the opus number 14. Years later, shortly before his death, Raff wrote a third Sonata - after an intervening Fantasy Sonata - in the same key of E minor. What was unusual was that it received the same "op.14" designation as the earlier Sonata, instead of the two-hundred-and-something that was due. In fact, Raff had made an arrangement with a publisher for revising his earlier works, but actually rewrote the items in question, leading to the anomaly of a composer with two separate opp. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12 and 14, separated by up to four decades!
To help avoid confusion Raff or his publishers gave the 'revised' work the title of 'Grande Sonate' - the original had apparently been 'Sonate avec Fugue'. Both titles are apt, with a massive fugue in the first movement of a work that is, like the Suite, great in both breadth and depth. In fact, the op.14 of 1881 provides Raff's final words for the piano, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the work has an unequivocal valedictory mood about it - like a later version of Schubert's magical B flat Sonata, D.960.
In both piano works Raff establishes a unique voice that lies in some regards between Beethoven and Liszt, but without ever sounding like either. His style was intellectual but never impersonal - both the intelligence of Raff's writing and a powerful emotional content come across in these very solid and generally likeable performances by Ruiz.
Ruiz is now in his seventies, but the years have been kind to him. In the Sonata he still has the technique and stamina to execute a work requiring substantial prowess - this is a work of Alkanian or Lisztian virtuosity. Ruiz would probably own to having lost a little of the delicacy of touch that characterises his reading of the Suite, and some of the lyricism of Raff's passionate music is lost to a combination of Ruiz's muscular approach and the closeness of the microphones. All in all, however, this recording complements the rather different interpretation heard in the only other recording, that of Bulgarian pianist Valentina Seferinova on the unlikely-sounding Cahoots Classical label in 2002 - this latter coupled, incidentally, with the Second (Fantasy) Sonata (CAH 001, reissued in 2007 by Cameo Classics CC9024CD).
Sound quality is pretty good. The re-master cannot entirely disguise the age of the original, and there are a few odd sounds here and there in the background, but there are plenty of 21st-century, wholly digital recordings on the market that are less remarkable. There is an audible click just before 9:00 of the first track - possibly only on the review disc. Though Genesis do not state explicitly, the Sonata was evidently recorded in the last year or so, and though the audio is more than serviceable, it does lack some of the spaciousness and warmth of the earlier recording.
The booklet notes consist of two parts, a reprint of the original detailed LP notes by Frank Cooper and some new well-written, informative ones on the modern recording by Mark Thomas of the invaluable Joachim Raff Society.
Those who like what they hear here - which should be everyone with a love of fine music - can turn next to the three-CD survey of Raff's piano music by British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen on the new Grand Piano label. The first two volumes appeared to very warm reviews (GP602, GP612), with a third due out later this year. Nguyen is also the pianist on Sterling’s CD collection of Raff’s music for piano, chorus and orchestra (review).  

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