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Joachim RAFF (1822–1882)
Complete Music for cello and piano
Two Romances, Op.182 (1873) [9:04]
Two Fantasy Pieces, Op.86 (1854) [15:45]
Duo, Op.59 (1848, rev. 1867) [16:25]
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, Op.183 (1873) [26:49]
Joseph Mendoes (cello); Taeyeon Lim (piano)
rec. 11-12, 18 April, 2 May 2016, Citrus College recording studios, Glendora, California, USA.
First recordings except Duo

As a follower of obscure composers, I have been familiar with the name Joachim Raff for many years. To my delight, he seems to be one of those whose music is gradually emerging from decades of neglect. This disc - which was 'crowd-funded' - includes several first recordings, all of which are indicated above.

The disc starts with a set of two ‘Romances’, published in 1873 as Op.182. As the title implies, these are charming pleasant little pieces, full of good tunes and really rather nice. The first of the two - an ‘Andante’ - contains a slightly edgy middle section which is a good contrast to the opening and ending of the piece. The main theme is very memorable and is splendidly played and sensitively accompanied. The second, which is also an ‘Andante’, is slightly longer, more complex in structure and a little more driven overall. It is extremely cleverly constructed and full of invention. Interestingly, these two pieces were written so that they could be played with horn or cello, with piano accompaniment – it would be interesting to hear the horn version as the writing seems so well attuned to the cello.

Next follow two linked ‘Fantasy Pieces’. The first part of the opening piece reminds me of a Brahms' violin sonata in mood – a sort of sunny reflective sound with gentle accompaniment from the pianist while the cello winds a friendly sounding melody. Around 3:00, the gently flowing music stops and is replaced with a comical pizzicato section for cello and piano which will put a smile on your face. This is written like a question and answer session for both instruments and after a couple of minutes, the smoothly flowing lines of the earlier melodies return in order to be developed into a ravishing tune with some lovely runs for the pianist to execute while accompanying. This then stops and the pizzicato treatment returns. The ending is especially effective with things winding down quietly before the second part begins. This begins with a strange tune for piano alone which changes key several times before settling down and the cello joining in. Things gradually become a little more agitated with the pianist having some leaping about to do but all in a peaceful way. There is a more forceful section at around 4:45 where the main theme is stated with some power before dissolving into a lovely quiet little restatement for solo piano before both instruments relax into a gorgeous conclusion.

The Duo, Op.59 follows and interestingly, this also exists in a version for violin and piano; in that version, it has been recorded on CPO, along with the first violin sonata. On that disc, the soloists were Ingolf Turban and Jascha Nemtsov. The CPO is another fascinating CD, well worth seeking out; it was reviewed here in 2003. Anyway, the Duo in this version is slightly different from the violin score - aside for being for a different instrument, obviously - as this is an improved score completed by Raff in 1867. The first half is generally more restrained and peaceful with some tuneful writing for both instruments but nothing particularly virtuosic in terms of number of notes or speed. However, as the work develops, it falls into the pattern of alternating sections of reflective writing with more aggressive and powerful music; for example there is a transition around 9:30 from urbane cello writing to something much more gritty. This then changes into a memorable and playful little tune. The remainder of the piece gradually increases in tension and the ending is a headlong rush of virtuosity from both participants with some writing high up in the register for the cello.

The final piece here is the Cello Sonata, Op.183. The opening ‘Allegro’ is a mixture of stormy and more reflective sections, excellently constructed and stuffed with some really interesting and involving music. The opening theme is again akin to a theme which could have been written by Brahms with an overlay of cheerfulness. The conclusion is really powerful with both soloists going full pelt, with neither putting a finger wrong. The second movement, a short ‘Vivace’ as the cover notes say, seems to owe something to Mendelssohn in general mood and in writing that is fleet of finger. There is a slightly more restrained but bouncy central section which causes the pianist a lot of leaping around the keyboard before the original opening music returns at great speed – neither soloist has any problems with this difficult music and both play marvellously. This whole movement could easily become an 'earworm'. The following ‘Andante’ is different again; the piano starts with a questioning phrase and is shortly joined by the cello in a slightly melancholic tone, slowly gaining in anxiousness and around 3:00, the piano takes over with the cello providing little interjections into the general discourse. A short while later, the atmosphere changes again and the music takes a more cheerful sounding path which it remains on until the end of the movement. This is music which sort of “glows” as it progresses and again, could easily stick in the mind. The ending is absolutely wonderful as the piano descends quietly while the cello holds the bass note. The ‘Finale’ is a return to more rapid writing for the participants, starting quietly but gradually gaining in power. This is happy, sunny music again, very well written for both instruments and full of memorable passages and tunes. There is a shorter more anxious sounding section around 7:00 which seems to serve as a bridge to the ending of the movement which once more is relaxed and happy.

I completely fail to understand why any of the music on this disc is not more widely played. Any of these pieces would make interesting additions to any recital programme. This is utterly wonderful music with perfectly judged performances throughout and neither instrumentalist stumbles. Cover notes are excellent and informative and written by the founder of the Raff website, Mark Thomas who has worked tirelessly to promote this composer. These notes also make mention of some pieces by Raff for this combination of instruments which are missing and probably lost.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc with excellent sound quality, running for nearly 70 minutes. I shall be returning to this one often as there is much here to be enjoyed and both instrumentalists do a splendid job. Full marks to all concerned.

Jonathan Welsh

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