Lachen, Switzerland: Friday 19 October 2012
Lachen, that pretty little town beside Lake Zurich, takes its status as Raff's birthplace seriously and this year, the 190th anniversary of his birth and 130th of his death, it is hosting a series of lectures, concerts and recitals organised by the Swiss Joachim Raff Society to celebrate its most famous son. The Society's energetic president Res Marty also plundered its archive and conducted his own extensive researches to mount in the centre of the town a month-long exhibition about Raff's life. As a prelude to the concert later that evening, Marty hosted a private view of the exhibition, which was closing that weekend.
This was no pokey, dusty collection of faded documents but a large, visually attractive and professionally-designed display in a light and airy exhibition space, calculated to pique the interest of even the most unmusical of visitors. A time line of Raff's life, several metres long, led to a series of well-delineated areas focusing on different periods of his career, each copiously illustrated with photographs, scores, letters and artifacts. There was even what Herr Marty described as his "Doris and Helene corner" about Raff's wife and their daughter. This being Lachen, a generous amount of space was also devoted to Raff's Swiss childhood. Not only had his researches uncovered several hitherto unknown facts about Raff's family, previously unpublished photographs and original documents, but he had also discovered an early composition which had remained buried and unknown amongst Raff's papers in Munich. Marty had even quite literally "unearthed" the original plaque commemorating Raff's birthplace which was thought lost when the building was demolished. It would have been good to have had Raff's music playing in the background too but, all in all, this was a fascinating and completely absorbing exhibition, from which I had to be dragged away to attend the evening's concert.
Lachen's impressive Catholic Church, with its twin onion-domed towers, makes a splendid concert venue and it was packed for the celebration concert, given by the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Konstanz conducted by Giovanni Bria. After an introductory speech and formal welcome to the various Raff luminaries present, the evening got under way with a piece by Raff which always makes a strong impact: his Overture Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Although I have heard, both live and on disc, several performances of this powerful work I have always counted Bria's interpretation at a previous Lachen concert as being the most effective and hoped that this performance would emulate it. It did.
Bria wouldn't mind being described as an "old Raff hand" and that wealth of experience certainly showed in the grandly sonorous, devotional opening which quotes Luther's great chorale. The music needs space to breathe to contrast with the combative material which comes next, to which Bria transitioned with a well controlled increase in tempo. Once into the allegro itself he whipped up the excitement, the piccolo skirling demonically, until the music dissolved into a melting cantabile theme, played here with great warmth and almost Tchaikovskian lyricism. Those three opening sections characterised Bria's interpretation of the rest of the work. Raff described it as an "Overture to a drama on the 30 years war" and Bria emphasised the dramatic and deliberately episodic nature of the piece, as much symphonic poem as overture, with well contrasted dynamics and tempi, always keeping the tension high and maintaining the music's momentum and excitement. Each time the brass thundered out "Ein feste Burg", it rang thrillingly around the church. The drama almost over, the grandeur of the great hymn's final peroration was as noble as one could wish for and the final martial stretta was ratchetted up by Bria to make a hugely exciting close to the piece. Germany's provincial radio orchestras are of a high standard and the Konstanz orchestra is no exception. Well-rehearsed and confident in this no doubt unknown music they responded to Bria's direction impeccably, producing a finely-balanced and detailed sound which coped well with the church's sometimes booming acoustic.
Although the orchestra is never relegated to the sidelines, Raff's Cello Concerto No.1 is very much a showcase for the soloist and eighteen year old wunderkind Christoph Croisé commanded the work from his opening phrase. Equally at home in both the drama and the lyricism with which the work abounds, Croisé's confidence both in interpretation and execution was clear. The opening Allegro was a properly sprightly affair, occasionally slowed only slightly to revel in Raff's lovely melody. Croisé's rich tone was amply demonstrated in the extended coda (from memory rather longer than in Raff's original!) which was played with evident passion. The slow movement follows without a break and was beautifully played by both Croisé and the orchestra but was taken perhaps a tad too slowly; Raff's melodies, lovely though they are, need not be lingered over quite so much. At its close, though, Croisé's playing did convey that tangible sense of regret which is a hallmark of so many Raff slow movements. The finale, ushered in with splendid fanfares from the brass, was taken at a cracking pace and proved to be another tour de force for Croisé, who coped with its challenges with aplomb. In an effective touch, he slowed the pace just before the movement's end, the better to highlight its madcap closing bars. The orchestra's contribution in the tutti was as solid and convincing as one could have hoped for. The best compliment which one can pay Christoph Croisé is that one rapidly forgot his youth; he delivered a thoroughly engaging and convincing interpretation of this delightful score and entirely deserved the extended applause which greeted its end, to which he responded with two solo encores. He has a great future ahead of him.
The final work in the concert was Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, a work chosen by Bria as a counterweight to Raff's Overture as it too makes prominent use of Luther's great Protestant chorale. This is not a piece often heard in the concert hall and its neglect is hard to fathom, especially when given as satisfying and convincing a performance as it received here. Bria again highlighted the work's dramatic contrasts and his orchestra (which I understand had never performed the work!) responded with playing of finesse and precision. The Mendelssohn of the lightly-textured Italian Symphony was here overshadowed by a composer steeped in romantic drama, writing more richly varied music: the dark solemnity of the chorale-like opening leading to a well-paced and exciting opening movement, the joyous, dancing second movement contrasting with a slow movement dominated by Ein feste Burg, all culminating in a vigorous, well-pointed finale, full of excitement. It was a fine conclusion to a fine concert.