Raff Chamber Music Vol 3 MDG

Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
Chamber Music Volume 3
String Octet, Op. 176 (1872)
Fantasy Op. 207b for Piano Quintet (1877)
Revue musicale Trovatore (1857-58)
Revue musicale Rigoletto (1857-58)
Leipziger Streichquartett
Elizabeth Dingstad (violin); Frank Reinecke (violin); Dorothea Hemken (viola); Peter Hörr (cello)
Rudolph Meister (piano)
rec. 2021, Konzerthaus der Abtei, Marienmünster, Germany
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
MDG 307 2273-2 [70]

When I think of Swiss composer Joseph Joachim Raff, I (perhaps strangely) think of Gustav Mahler as well. Why? Remember Mahler’s fixation on the “Curse of the Ninth”? Who among nineteenth-century composers had completed a tenth symphony? Beethoven had begun work on a tenth, leaving only sketches. Schubert wrote, not to say completed, nine; he, too, left bits of a tenth. Anton Bruckner hadn’t even completed a ninth symphony before his death. Ten was a doomed number. So Mahler hedged his bets, refusing to designate Das Lied von der Erde as the tenth among his symphonies. Believing he had beaten the curse, he started work on his nominal Tenth Symphony, only to leave it unfinished on his death in 1910. Mahler didn’t seem to consider that Louis Spohr (1784-1859) had completed ten symphonies, though he chose not to publish the last, as did Joachim Raff. In fact, Raff started work on an eleventh symphony, which he subtitled “Winter” since it would have rounded out a series of symphonies named for the four seasons.

Then again, by Mahler’s day the once-celebrated Raff had become almost a musical footnote, his compositions falling quickly out of favor after his sudden death in 1882. Today, recordings have managed to reintroduce music lovers to the symphonies of both Spohr and Raff. Complete cycles of both are available, and quite a few other examples of Raff’s copious orchestral output have been committed to disc as well. Raff was an equally prolific composer of chamber music (four piano trios, five violin sonatas, eight string quartets), and now his contributions in this area are being explored, too. The current recording is the third in a series from MDG dedicated to his chamber music. I haven’t heard the first two volumes, but Stuart Sillitoe had very complimentary things to say about the music and interpretations in Volume 1 (review), dedicated to performances of Quartets 1 and by the Leipziger Streichquartett. Volume 2 included two of Raff’s later string quartets.

For Volume 3, the Leipzigers venture farther afield, offering the Octet, the Fantasy for Piano Quintet, and two Revues musicales based on operas by Verdi. Of the three works, the Octet is the most substantial and rewarding. Stylistically, it falls on a spectrum somewhere between Mendelssohn’s youthful Classicism and the elegiac Late Romantic glow of Max Bruch’s last composition (which I highly recommend, if you don’t know it). Raff’s work is an especially confident example of High Romanticism, having a plein air heartiness about it that is very appealing. The first movement, marked Allegro, starts with the statement of a brusque little phrase that propels much of the musical argument. The gentle second theme only briefly interrupts the headlong course of the movement, capped by a long and energetic coda. 

The second movement (Allegro molto) is a brief Mendelssohnian scherzo with an equally brief trio section whose gentler contours are troubled by the jogging rhythms of the scherzo proper. For all its brevity, it’s memorable.

The slow movement (Andante moderato) has a tender main melody with the character of a cavatina. The middle section, in the minor key, is more dramatic, punctuated by pizzicato figures. When the first melody comes back, it rises to an emotional plateau before subsiding into the gentle strains of the opening.

The rondo finale (Vivace) starts in a mysterious vein, with agitated runs in the first violin, but then gallops ahead, slowing down only a bit in the contrasting episodes that come along the way. The coda includes a quiet, almost contemplative glance at the main theme before barreling on to the finish. All in all, this is a characterful piece that speaks to Raff’s gifts as a chamber music composer.

I’m not as taken with the Fantasy for Piano Quintet, a reworking of a version for two pianos (Op. 207a), though it has charms as well. As with some of Schubert’s fantasies (Wanderer FantasyFantasy in F Minor for piano four hands), it comprises a single movement but in three distinct sections, two fast sections flanking a Larghetto middle one. The outer sections are a bit overheated for my taste, while the piano writing is busy and brilliant in the manner of Biedermeier-era composers like Friedrich Kalkbrenner (d.  1849) and Ferdinand Ries (d. 1838). By the way, kudos to Rudolf Meister for a really virtuoso rendering of the piano part.  It’s sometimes hard to imagine that the Fantasy was written as late as 1877 and by a man who had once been employed as Franz Liszt’s orchestrator (before Liszt gained confidence to do the honors himself). But anyway, the lyrical middle section is attractive, and the outer sections have spunk if not a lot of substance.

Speaking of Liszt, like the Hungarian composer, Raff repurposed some of those thrice-familiar tunes from Verdi’s operas. But unlike Liszt, who created virtuoso “paraphrases” or fantasies for solo piano, Raff is more respectful of Verdi’s original melodies, content merely to arrange them (tastefully) for violin and piano. The notes to the current recording tell us that these Revues musicales were the result of a commission from the Schott publishing company, which could bank on salon-music treatments of opera tunes by one Joseph Küffner. Unfortunately, he died before getting around to performing this service for Verdi’s operas. Raff stepped in, reworking famous melodies from Il trovatoreLa traviata, and Rigoletto in the style of Küffner. The Revues were in turn published under Küffner’s name in 1857-58. If you like Verdi’s tunes, you’ll like these arrangements, though you probably won’t revisit them often.

So, in sum, we have a very fine work in the Octet, an ambitious but slightly shallow piece in the Fantasy, as well as some tuneful salon music that Raff was apparently happy not to attach his name to. I wish there were another work or two of substance on this program, but I’m glad to have Raff’s chamber music finally getting an airing on disc – especially in spirited performances such as those from the Leipziger Streichquarttet and friends. Their affection for the composer is obvious, making me want to hear what they have to say about Raff’s string quartets.  

Lee Passarella

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