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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
String Quartet No.2 in A major, Op.90 (1857) [40:44]
String Quartet No.3 in E minor, Op.136 (1867) [33:37]
String Quartet No.4 in A minor, Op.137 (1867) [30:30]
String Quartet No.8 in C major, Op.192 (1876) [22:40]
Mannheim String Quartet
rec. November 2006 (Quartets 4 and 8) and June 2007 (Quartets 2 and 3), Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
CPO 777004-2 [74:41 + 53:24]

The Raff renaissance on disc continues. This time it's the string quartets that are explored by the Mannheim Quartet. In passing one should note CPO's steadfast commitment to the composer's music with discs of the piano trios, violin sonatas and some of the symphonies (7 and 8-11) in their catalogue.

This twofer presents half Raff's published eight quartets, and we must hope that the remainder will be forthcoming to add to numbers 6 and 7 recorded by the Mannheimers in 2003 (review). If the trios can be taken as a precedent, then it looks likely even though the recordings were made as long ago as 2006-07. The quartets are suffused with Raff's lyrical grace but, more than that, they have a sense of personable individuality that makes them more than merely attractive examples of the genre.

The Second Quartet in A major was written in 1857 and the warmly balanced playing of the Mannheimers pays dividends in exploring its sonata-form felicities. The opening has a wealth of delicious melodic writing, a songful iridescence that is well contrasted with the Allegretto where the play of rustic and elfin is especially delightful. The finale is strongly chromatic, its March theme adding style to this 40-minute quartet. There was a gap of a decade between this work and the succeeding Quartet in E minor. Here Raff makes much play of independent lines, somewhat Mendelssohnian, that sound halting and almost contingent but which fuse together adeptly and wittily. The scherzo mines those rustic drone motifs before ushering in the graceful and quietly complex slow movement, its diverse moods encapsulating a sweetly melancholic section, a reverie conveyed with rapt beauty in this performance - the music barely breathes at one point before its hymnal close.

The Fourth Quartet, written close on the heels of the E minor, witnesses a degree of urgency rare until now in his quartets. It's a case of four independent voices trying to find a compromise with the first violin leading the lyricism with great sweep. Raff was an inveterate writer of jovial scherzos for chamber forces and this is one such, whilst his slow movement conforms to another quality, which is his ability to be melancholic yet move onwards with fluidity. With a great sense of theatrical panache, the instruments revert to ruminative soliloquies, as if unable to synthesise the emotive direction of the quartet, until Raff relinquishes them from their dilemma via a brief but concluding presto section.

Raff's last quartet differs from the preceding ones in this disc. Firstly it's quite obviously based on the ground-plan of Beethoven's last quartets in its use of numerous movements but also it conforms rather more to the condition of a suite than a quartet. Raff utilises old dance forms but with craft and wit and quite without a sense of pastiche. He crafts a delightful Aria and vests the Gavotte and Musette with a trademark drone effect. This shows Raff moving in rather different directions, though I wouldn't say that it eclipses the earlier works.

The recording perspective puts the quartet at just a slight distance, though not too far to blunt the sweetness and lyricism the group locates in the music. They play with charm and elegance throughout this delightful release.

Jonathan Woolf


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