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Suite for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 200 (1875) [38:24] Die Eifersüchtigen (comic opera in 3 acts) – Overture (1881-82) [8:18] König Alfred (opera in 4 acts) – Overture (1848-50) [14:41] Dornröschen (Märchen-Epos in 4 parts) (1855) – Vorspiel [8:06] and Die Dornhecke [3:51] Samson (Musikalisches Trauerspiel) – Vorspiel – Act 3 (1853-57) [4:17]
Tra Nguyen (piano), The Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera/Roland Kluttig
rec. Umeå Concert Hall, Sweden, 15-18 June 2009. DDD STERLING CDS10852 [77:46]
Securely embedded in Franz Liszt’s Weimar circle, Raff began a series of large-scale works that added materially to his composition list. In fact, during the 1870s he wrote no fewer than 87 pieces, around a third of his complete catalogue.
The Suite for piano and orchestra comes squarely from the middle of the decade in question, and it is a big five-movement affair. Tending toward romantic grandiosity, it is imbued with a riotous run of piano roulades and rolled chords, nicely lyric episodes for the orchestra and splendidly evocative orchestration, and the fugue that grows out of the Introduction is no academic detour. That pomposo element infiltrates the Menuet (the inner movements have baroque dance titles), though it also takes in what I can best describe as Salon-meets-Moszkowski, in which the busy piano soloist is encouraged—and does so here in the hands of Tra Nguyen—to play with sentiment and style, rippling away arpeggio-style. There is rhythmic wit in the Gavotte and Musette, and a truly lovely Cavatina that reminds one of Raff’s most popular and famous work of the same name that was, once upon a time, trotted out by every café fiddler worth his salt, and quite a few that were not. That Raff could so effortlessly disgorge melodies of such warmth is a true gift. The finale draws on panache to create a splendidly big finish. No one would claim the Suite has much in the way of intellectual pretension but it has a profuse and imaginative way with colour, craft and beauty, and one could never be bored listening to it.
The overtures and other orchestral works that follow in the programme amplify these gifts or show others. The overture to the comic opera Die Eifersüchtigen generates a nicely sprung rhythm that shows the influence of Mendelssohn in places but also that of Smetana. It would be interesting to know how much of the Czech composer’s music Raff knew. A longer, richer and more elaborate overture is that to König Alfred; it has a vivid theatricality and immediacy, indicative of the martial, March elements—stirring indeed. Raff’s Lisztian inheritance can be gauged in the movements from Dornröschen, with subtle tints and half-nocturnal elements, and an elfin solo violin passage. The solo violin reappears in the introduction to the third act of Samson, a quiet and lyrical envoi.
Excellently performed and conducted, well recorded, helpfully annotated, this is a consistently rewarding disc for those who like raffish and congenial music.