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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Symphony No. 2 in C major for Large Orchestra, Op. 140 (1866) [33:41]
Orchestral Prelude to Shakespeare's: The Tempest in G minor, WoO 49 (1879) [14:10]; Macbeth in C minor, WoO 50 (1879) [11:22]; Romeo and Juliet in D major, WoO 51 (1879) [9:46]; Othello in D major, WoO 52 (1879) [8:14]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 June 2012
CHANDOS CHSA 5117 [76:59] 

Concurrently with this disc, Neeme Järvi, who never seems to have a day off, was recording the first in a new Chandos cycle of Tchaikovsky's ballets with the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway. As outstanding as that new Sleeping Beauty is (on CHSA 5113), it is far from easy to argue that the music-loving world has a pressing need of yet another reading. By contrast, there are only two previous recordings of Joachim Raff's eleven highly idiomatic, imaginative symphonies, neither of them at all bad, but certainly leaving room for improvement. The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Hans Stadlmair, recently released as a handy boxed set (review), is probably the critics' favourite, although a bank loan may be required to purchase it. The forerunner was an early-Nineties series on Marco Polo with different orchestras, mainly from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all but one under Urs Schneider. These are currently available as mp3 downloads only. In 2001 and 2002 Naxos had the idea of reissuing the Marco Polo discs under their own brand, but only two appeared (8.555411, 8.555491) and then the label either had a change of heart, or forgot.
 
The issue of sound quality is an important consideration for the prospective purchaser in all these cycles - even this Chandos. For all the fancy recording equipment listed in the booklet, audio here is something less than immaculate. SACD this may be, but there is an undeniable lossy quality to the sound - an all too common feature of recordings from certain parts of Europe, as the Raff cycle on Marco Polo once demonstrated. In fairness, it may not be noticeable to all ears. For example, the Chandos website cites an early review from an SACD specialist, in which the reviewer was "staggered by the excellence of the sound quality". Caveat emptor! - there really is nothing to be staggered by, because the audio is frankly not excellent.
 
On the other hand, it is no worse than the Tudor set, and better than the Marco Polo. All things considered, Chandos may well be the best bet, simply because Neeme Järvi is such a great conductor and the Suisse Romande a pedigree orchestra that always seems to know the right way to play works from this era. Audio aside, this first volume packs a considerable emotional punch, and is generously timed to boot.
 
Raff's Second Symphony is like a Schubert-Schumann hybrid: lyrically dramatic without getting over-excited, colourfully scored, elegantly emphatic - a symphony that sounds like a symphony. The four Orchestral Preludes after Shakespeare plays are suitably dramatic and, like Shakespeare himself, eschew melodrama through their business-like briskness. Two of the Preludes incidentally, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, co-starred alongside the Second Symphony on the Marco Polo original.
 
The booklet notes are detailed, informative and enthusiastic, although annotator Avrohom Leichtling's assertions that the Romeo and Juliet Prelude "looks forward to Webern" whilst the Macbeth is a "film score in all but fact" are as daft as they are doctrinaire. Leichtling even wades briefly into surrealist waters when he claims that the four Preludes are "all rather objectivist in tone and on that philosophical basis it would not be too far-fetched to view them as prototypes for imaginary novels by an author such as Ayn Rand"! Chandos continue with their curious practice of shrinking the font to render it ever less legible, their texts all but a tiny island of ink in a blank paper sea.
 
Apart from the first two symphonies and an earlier one now lost, all Raff's symphonies come from an extremely fertile decade of writing ending in 1879. These treasures lie ahead in Järvi's series; fingers crossed, sound quality will improve quickly.
 
Byzantion
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