A real shock awaits you if your lodestar for Raff’s Fifth Symphony has been the old LP performance conducted by Bernard Herrmann, later transferred to CD by Unicorn-Kanchana (CD2031). Even if you picked up Hans Stadlmair’s disc (Tudor 1605), as I did, you will be in for a jolt, or - as Sinatra sang - a boot. Shock is generated by the compression and electric speeds generated by Neeme Järvi, as he takes almost ten minutes off Stadlmair’s performance and an even more remarkable quarter-of-an-hour off Herrmann’s. One’s first thought is that he must have imposed cuts or has taken a reckless approach. In fact what seems to have happened is that Järvi has taken a Beethoven-at-face-value look at the implications of tempi via the metronome markings. This is a matter that annotator Avrohom Leichtling goes into in his booklet notes, adding that Raff’s four movements are all effectively to be taken at one tempo. This implies a narrative swiftness, and a lack of deviation from the established tempo, that might – in lesser hands - lead to stiffness and to a doctrinaire approach. However it’s evident that no such strictures really apply to Järvi, who vests the work with constant motion, vivid colour and plenty of orchestral incident.
Cast in four movements but in three programmatic ‘sections’ the symphony gains, in this recording, from a sheer, indeed visceral intensity. The music is exultant and driven, and the sense of implacable élan is palpable. Whereas others drag the slow movement, Järvi observes that Raff’s movement heading is Andante quasi Larghetto, not Andante and performs it thus. There is some especially appealing wind phrasing in the movement, notably towards its eloquent close. One senses that the conductor has spent a deal of rehearsal time over balancing wind and string lines. The March that opens the second part of the work is a real quick-step but it generates an almost phantasmagorical quality at this tempo. Both competitor recordings offer altogether more conventional, even formal readings – though they are both attractively done on their own terms and in the context of their readings as a whole. The ride to hell that drives the finale - with its stoic and beautiful chorale theme - offers Lisztian vibrancy and Grand Guignol elements. There’s no doubting the conviction in this magnetic traversal, and it caps something of a triumphantly revisionist look at this symphony.
After the shudder and bombast of the Leonore Symphony one can turn to the substantial disc companions for works that tap Raff’s penchant for the operatic. The Overture to Dame Kobold sees him mine comic Rossini in well-constructed sonata form. Abends is a rhapsody for orchestra but also an orchestration of the fifth movement of Raff’s Piano Suite No.6. More heroic, and occasionally just a bit pompous, is the Overture to his grand heroic opera, King Alfred. It’s rather the equivalent of Bismarck in music. Raff seems to have operated on the kitchen-sink principle here, asking for a four-man percussion section, and a suitably big orchestra, trying to emulate Tannhäuser, one supposes. This was the product of a vaulting 26 or 27 year old but the later Prelude to Dornröschen reveals defter qualities, even though he uses much the same orchestral forces as King Alfred. Finally there is the overture to Die Eifersüchtigen, composed shortly before Raff’s death. It’s serio-comic buffo, from the sound of things, but remarkably it was published as late as 2009, and the work has never been performed on the stage.
These overtures amplify the qualities embodied in the performance of the symphony. Järvi encourages the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande to give of their very best and, abetted by excellently judged SACD sound, the results are biting, driving, refined and brilliantly exciting. I suspect that those used to one of other of the two cited recordings will find Järvi’s tempi in Leonore hard to take at first, but I hope that they will accept the challenge of this scintillating and often nightmarish ride.
And a second review ...
A year on from the opener (review), this is a very generously filled second volume of Chandos's promising Raff symphony cycle. There are two previous recordings of the composer's eleven highly idiomatic, imaginative symphonies, long unjustly neglected by programmers and critics alike. The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Hans Stadlmair, recently released by Tudor in handy boxed set form (review, with further discographical information) is probably the critics' favourite, although it comes neither cheap nor without flaws. 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 from Naxos as mp3 downloads only (9.40248). In 2001 Naxos had the good idea of reissuing the Marco Polo recordings as physical 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.
Raff's programmatic 'Lenore' Symphony has three further modern recordings. One comes from a local rival to Järvi's ensemble, the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, conducted by Nicholas Carthy. A satisfactory, rather than compelling recording, it was brought out by Italian label Dynamic (CDS 283) well over a decade ago, and there has been no sign of any kind of follow-up since. Another version is Yondani Butt's with the Philharmonia Orchestra on ASV (DCA 1000), one performance in a long line by this determinedly uncontroversial conductor of almost clinical neutrality.
Finally there is Matthias Bamert and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra on Koch Schwann, re-released as 367932, but dogged by poor sound. As for Chandos, despite the fact its audio quality was not as good as the SACD/24-bit/96kHz tags – abetted by one or two prominent reviews – implied, the first release immediately became the new standard for the Second Symphony. This is above all for the fact that Järvi is such a fine all-round conductor and the Suisse Romande a pedigree orchestra with a definite aptitude for Raff-era music. Back at the same Swiss location, that slight lossy edge to the audio is still there on this latest disc, yet the Chandos sound is still much superior to all its predecessors', and despite the imperfections constitutes a further plus-point for Järvi's cycle.
On the other hand, no further incentive should be required when the offering is one of Raff's most memorable works, the tune-packed, masterfully orchestrated Fifth Symphony. He chooses to focus – and then expatiate - on the nervous drama of Gottfried Bürger's famous but second-rate poem 'Lenore', rather than on its cold-blooded religious mania. The story is similar to Dvořák's later cantata Svatební Košile, known in English as The Spectre's Bride, which was based on a similar-themed ballad by Karol Jaromír Erben. This is doubly pertinent: Raff shares Dvořák's intuitive feel for lyrical drama. In Bürger, the eponymous Lenore is duped and then effectively buried alive for thinking herself in a state of despair neglected by God, but Raff's final-movement 'ride into hell' is jauntily mesmeric and ends with an uplifting chorale – moving, but certainly diverging from the implications of Bürger's chilling poem.
It is worth noting here that Järvi's account is a full ten minutes faster than Stadlmair, Carthy and Schneider. This is interesting enough in itself, but these three were already seven or eight minutes quicker than Bernard Herrmann's pioneering recording with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970 — (most recently available on Unicorn UKCD 2031, but originally funded by Herrmann himself. Järvi is taking Raff at his word with his astonishingly fast metronome markings, but those who have had their opinions as to how this work should sound coloured by more leisurely approaches will likely need time to get used to these tempos, and those many long in thrall to Herrmann's account may possibly never accept them. The third movement Marsch-Tempo in particular will raise many eyebrows: Raff asks for, and Järvi gives – where no one else seemingly dares - 160 beats per minute, a good 50% more than what would normally be expected from a march. Yet odd as it initially sounds, the speed is still well within the bounds of a military double march.
Järvi's programme is amplified by a selection of overtures from Raff's operas, plus one of his own transcriptions – his only such, in fact - the 'Abends' Rhapsody. One or two of these are take-them-or-leave-them works by comparison with the symphony, though their Rossini-meets-Beethoven idiom is undeniably attractive, and their realisation here by the ever-dependable Swiss Romandes elegantly winning. Best of the four extras is the most substantial, the 'King Alfred' overture. Scored for large orchestra, it is a dramatic tone poem in all but name. The notes describe it as "grandiose in design, comparable in sweep and scope to Wagner's recent overture to Tannhäuser". The Rhapsody itself is a lovely, moodily crepuscular work, over all too quickly.
As for the CD booklet, Chandos continue apace with their shrinking-font policy, their texts tiny islands of ink in blank paper seas, legibility further hampered by the greyish ink. Still, the notes themselves are usually excellent, as indeed those here by Avrohom Leichtling are - detailed, informative, enthusiastic, trilingual. Bürger's poem might usefully have been included, if only to make use of some of that blank space.
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