Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
Chamber Music Volume 3
String Octet in C major, Op 176 (1872)
Fantasy in G minor, Op 207b for Piano Quintet (1877)
“Revue musicale” Trovatore (1857)
“Revue musicale” Rigoletto (1858)
Elisabeth Dingstad, Frank Reinecke (violin), Dorothea Hemken (viola), Peter Hörr (cello)
Rudolf Meister (piano)
rec. 2021 Konzerthaus Abtei Marienmünster
MDG 307 2273-2 
Here is Volume 3 of MDG’s ongoing survey of chamber music by Joachim Raff. The first two volumes – which I have not heard – contained string quartets played by the Leipziger Streichquartett. Here, that same excellent ensemble are joined by various other colleagues hence the group name of Leipziger Streichquartett “Plus” who play the String Octet Op 176 and the Fantasy for Piano Quintet Op 207b as the main works.
As the high opus numbers suggest, Raff was a prolific composer in just about all genres and both these works are good examples of his fluency and craft. The liner note by Elisabeth Deckers gives a useful summary of Raff’s personal life and professional career highlighting his essential opposition to the “New German School” of composition that centred around Wagner. Raff’s musical ideals were anchored on the earlier Romanticism of Mendelssohn and certainly it is the older composer’s spirit that is the benevolent presence even in a work such as the string octet which dates from 1872. I know this attractive and easily appealing work from a good performance on Chandos (logically coupled with the Mendelssohn Octet) played by the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields Chamber Ensemble. That performance, which still sounds well, is wholly superseded by this new version. Alongside the Leipzigers the Academy players sound rather gentile and a little constrained whereas the new recording bursts with bustling energy and good-natured vigour. Raff does not slavishly imitate the earlier work or composer but they share a similar spirit and that is what is so well captured here. You can hear Raff’s compositional skill in the way he shares the musical material around all eight players – there is a sense of genuine collaboration in both the scoring and the playing here that is a genuine delight. Time and again in this performance you are aware of wonderfully neat and intelligent performing choices that reflect the calibre of players involved.
Unsurprisingly the work is in the traditional four movements with the scherzo second, a lyrical Andante moderato third and a spirited closing Vivace bringing the work to an uplifting conclusion. The work runs to a fairly modest 23:11 in this performance but is well-proportioned and intelligently structured. The playing here is absolutely top drawer – but when you read the biographies of the ‘extra’ players brought in you realise that these are some of the best players around and so it sounds. Stefan Arzberger is leader of the regular quartet and throughout he plays with great beauty of tone and expressive sensitivity allied to easy virtuosity. The MDG recording – in ‘standard’ CD format – is also excellent; an ideal balance of tonal warmth but clarity and detail. The question often arises with Raff about how often his music rises above ‘just’ fluency to something more profound. But I would argue that this is to miss the point. Not every piece or composer can always address the eternal verities and neither should it try. As here, Raff writes music that I am sure is rewarding (if not easy) to play and certainly appealing to listen to. No work will ever match the Mendelssohn Octet for sheer genius but this certainly deserves to be heard.
Much the same can be said of the Fantasy for Piano Quintet Op 207b that follows. The “b” in the opus number is explained by the fact that this work was originally conceived for piano duet and this quintet version was a later alternative. The use of the key of G minor suggests a slightly stormier musical landscape and indeed this proves to be the case. The Leipziger Streichquartett is joined by pianist Rudolph Meister who is fully up to the demanding passagework of the piano part. Indeed, the writing of the keyboard and the quartet are so clearly defined and effective that I am intrigued to hear the two piano original to see what Raff originally intended. The work plays for a continuous 16:28 albeit in well-defined sections with the virtuosic opening giving way to another lyrical larghetto before a closing vivace. Another charge levelled at Raff is that his melodies can often have a salon sentimentality and that is arguably the case here. The keyboard filigree decoration of the cello theme in the central larghetto is just one such a passage – not a dry lace handkerchief in the house. But again the level of musicianship and execution is so high and the music is played with such authority and conviction that any such concerns seem secondary. Mendelssohn is still a strong influence, but this is a case of sharing a musical aesthetic rather than slavish imitation. The MDG recording again finds a very fine balance between keyboard and strings, which ensures this work is again given the finest possible presentation.
The disc is completed with something of an oddity – two “Revue musicale” for violin and piano on themes from Verdi operas; Trovatore and Rigoletto. Both are quite substantial running to 16:35 and 13:40, respectively, and both are in three sections. Simply put, these are ‘pot-pourris’ of melodies from these operas put together for domestic consumption by amateur players. In the 19th century and beyond, this kind of work was hugely popular and sold in vast numbers with just about any popular tune of the day likely to receive such a salon treatment. Important to make a distinction between this type of arrangement for home consumption and the “fantaisie brillante”-type of work which would be a vehicle for virtuoso display by leading players of the day. The former are deliberately modest in aim and execution – really no more than a medley of tunes. As such there is interest from a socio-historical standpoint to hear this music now, but to be honest it is of little musical merit or distinction.
There is an additional curio here in that these arrangements were published as having been prepared by Joseph Küffner not Raff. Apparently the publishers Schott were due to bring out a series of such medleys by Küffner but he died before they had been prepared. Rather than cancel a lucrative source of income Schott approached Raff to produce these works but under Küffner’s name. The results are – unsurprisingly – very effective, well-wrought and enjoyable presentations of familiar melodies in a direct and unadorned manner. There is almost no elaboration on the tunes themselves which are always presented in the middle/upper register of the violin with the piano relegated to a pretty basic accompanying role. All that said, I cannot imagine them being better played or presented than they are here. It is very hard to play such superficially simple music as well Arzberger and Meister do here. They avoid any temptation to over-emote or exaggerate. Instead we are given a beautifully controlled presentation of good tunes played with subtle and effective phrasing and understated technique. Whether I would choose to ever listen again to either work despite such fine musicianship is another question.
To be honest I would have preferred the last half hour of this disc to have been devoted to more ‘original’ Raff – somehow these two medleys seem a waste of the time and talents involved. However, that said the octet and fantasy are both worthy works that receive superb performances that I will return to with pleasure. Overall a very fine disc.
Previous review: Lee Passarella (February 2023)
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