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Joachim RAFF (1822-1882)
Works for Piano and Orchestra
Ode au Printemps, Op. 76 [16:05]
Piano Concerto in C minor, Op 185 [35:25]
Caprice on themes from ‘King Alfred’, Op 65 No 2 [15:37]
Tra Nguyen (piano)
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kerry Stratton
rec. 2017, Henry Wood Hall, London, Studio S1, Czech Radio, Prague
World première recording (caprice)
GRAND PIANO GP771 [67:06]

Many years back, while as a student I was preparing for a piano diploma, a piece by Joachim Raff caught my eye on the repertoire list. The piece, La fileuse (The Spinning Maid) was essentially this composer’s only well-known piece, but, as a study in such eminent company as major works by Chopin of Liszt in the Romantic-choice section, it must have had something to commend its inclusion at the time.

As it happened, I didn’t use the piece in my recital, and, for me, that composer’s name has really only cropped up somewhat peripherally ever since. Certainly the piano piece has tended to fall out of favour among pianists. Of course, there will always be champions of lesser-known composers, so it comes as no surprise that young British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen already has six volumes of the composer’s solo piano music to her credit, and which have earned her critical acclaim.

Mark Thomas’s informative sleeve-notes give a deal of information about the composer, and the music recorded here, though, as is usually the case, he would seem to be a card-paying member of the Joachim Raff Supporters’ Club.

As is so often the case with composers whose music hasn’t really stood the test of time, Raff’s reputation was apparently so high in its heyday, that, during the 1860s and 1870s, he was regarded by many as the foremost symphonist of his day. Born in Switzerland to a German father and Swiss mother, he gave up a promising teaching-career to concentrate on composition. Although originally self-taught, after winning major prizes for his First Symphony, and a cantata, his esteem grew significantly, and he became prolific in most musical genres, with works for the piano providing his largest output. He was equally regarded as a highly-skilled orchestrator.

From the compositional standpoint his music lies between the relative conservatism of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and the more revolutionary writing of Liszt and Wagner, and this, perhaps is the stumbling block. It is rarely, if ever, as memorable as any of the works of his much more illustrious contemporaries. True it is well-crafted, put together like a Swiss watch, always well-orchestrated, and with an overall balance between counterpoint and freer styles of writing, but this on its own is not sufficient to ensure that it keeps its place in the crowd, since it doesn’t really appear to have that much truly individual to say.

The Piano Concerto was written relatively late in Raff’s life, and at a time when his creativity should have been at its peak. There are some attractive moments along the way, particularly in the middle Andante quasi larghetto, and it is certainly a piece of ‘consummate craftsmanship’, as advocate Thomas writes. But then to describe it as just as stirring a Romantic piano concerto as any other in the genre, seems as much a sales ploy as a genuinely heartfelt-opinion. The Internet is full of performances of obscure Romantic piano concertos, by composers many of us have still never heard of, and the vast majority of these works frankly would seem to leave Raff’s somewhat-reserved offering lightyears behind – and that is before even taking into account the many examples that have already made it into Hyperion’s iconic Romantic Piano Concerto Series. Raff’s has yet to figure here although, to be fair, it is somewhat better represented on CD than the likes of, say, Benedict, or Kullak. Raff’s concerto was premiered in 1873, so hasn’t stayed the course of time like those of Liszt, Schumann or Mendelssohn, which predate the Swiss composer’s example by a few decades. Even Lalo’s concertante Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra – published the same year as Raff’s (1874) – still gets an occasional airing on the concert platform today.

In terms of concertante works, Raff wrote nine works for instrumentalist and orchestra, of which three are for the piano. The first of these, and which opens the present CD is the Ode au Printemps (Ode to Spring), a one-movement piece subtitled Morceau de concert. As a work written just six months after the composer had left Weimar for Wiesbaden, and where he had moved away from a somewhat restricted life among Liszt’s circle to a considerable degree of musical independence and the companionship of his new fiancée, it comes as little surprise that the sixteen-minute work, that coincided with the arrival of spring, should appear happy and imbued with a good deal of poetic inventiveness. While Raff had no specific programme in mind, spring-like thoughts figure prominently in the musical ideas, and, while it is never going to be perhaps the most inspiring and innovative single-movement work for piano and orchestra, as with the concerto before, the craftsmanship is once more much in evidence, both in terms of Raff’s idiosyncratic use of the orchestra, and and effective writing for the piano.

In introducing the final work on the CD – Caprice on themes from ’King Alfred’ – the sleeve notes mention that one of the ways in which Raff made some money during his life was by producing ‘solo piano arrangements’ of popular opera melodies, notching up some 41 such examples during his lifetime, and, of course, something in which he wasn’t alone in doing. Not only using works by leading contemporary operatic composers like Bellini, Rossini, Wagner, Weber, and others, Raff included something from his own four-act grand opera König Alfred – a fictional account of events embracing the battle of Erdington in 878, when Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, defeated the Danes.

But despite the detail of Thomas’s introduction, and which then goes on to describe the structure of the work in greater thoroughness, there is absolutely no mention at all that this is to be a work for piano alone, despite the CD’s title of ‘Works for Piano and Orchestra’. I made the mistake of listening through the 15 minutes or so of the piece, just waiting for the orchestra to appear, which, of course, it never did. Given the fairly derivative and clichéd writing in this not overly-outstanding item of solo-piano music, it wasn’t my fifteen best-spent minutes ever.

There is, for example, another work by Raff for Piano and Orchestra – his extensive five-movement Suite, Op 200, which lasts some 40 minutes. Perhaps if this had been coupled with just the Piano Concerto, giving an acceptable total running-time of around 75 minutes, then the Ode au Printemps could have found itself on a separate CD dedicated to a mix of orchestral music with cello, violin, and piano soloist respectively, and the Caprice on another one just for solo piano.

As it is, the present CD, despite being well played and faithfully recorded, simply doesn’t do what it says on the tin – something I find rather unexpected, whether it’s a world-première recording or not – unless, that is, I’ve missed something somewhere, like an orchestra, or an explanation.
Philip R Buttall



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