Ignoring historic recordings, and depending on whether you view a bottle as half full or half empty, the good (or bad) news is that there is little duplication amongst the scant Raff piano music discography on CD. The unreservedly good news is that most of the available performances are thoroughly recommendable. Unfortunately there are still only five CDs wholly devoted to Raff's piano music - most surprising in view of the attention being given to other areas of his oeuvre and the preponderance of piano music in his output.
See the CD discography for full listings of all the recordings mentioned here. Recommended recordings are marked in the discography.
Of Raff's three piano sonatas, two featured on a thoroughly recommendable issue from Cameo Classics on CC9024CD - review. The performances were formerly on Cahoots CAH 001. The Fantasie-Sonate op.168 and the late Piano Sonata op.14 (2nd. ver) receive sensitive and lyrical interpretations from Valentina Seferinova who plays with rewarding accuracy - never losing sight of Raff's ability to make even the most technically demanding scores accessible to the listener. The slighter Trois Morceaux op.2 pieces are played with engaging poetry and lightness of touch. Unfortunately, whilst Adrian Ruiz's newly recorded performance of the Piano Sonata for Genesis (GCD118 - review) is more exciting than Seferinova's account, it is also hard driven and unsympathetic and cannot really be recommended. On the other hand Tra Nguyen's new account of the Fantasie-Sonate for Grand Piano (GP612 - review) is even more subtle and musically satisfying than Seferinova's and could not be more highly recommended.
Raff's seven piano suites are at the centre of his output for the instrument and all are now available in fine, poetic readings from Alexander Zolotarev (AK Coburg DR 0006 - review, DR 0007 - review, DR 0008 - review and DR 0009 - review). In the first CD, the baroque-inspired C major Suite receives an appropriately undemonstrative performance, but Zolotarev pulls out all the romantic stops for the much grander G minor Suite. In both, though, his virtuosity is modestly employed and it never gets in the way of the music. The coupling is the first of Raff's piano arrangements of Bach's Cello Suites.
The second CD follows the same pattern with the last two Suites, those in G major and B flat flat, coupled with the second of the Bach Cello Suite arrangements. Perhaps more than in its predecessor, one wishes for some pianistic fireworks, but these are fine performances and thoroughly recommendable. The third CD features two of the smaller Piano Suites - the first, in A minor and the third, in E minor. These are near-impeccable performances, with Zolotarev's style well suited to their smaller scale. The two Bach Cello Suite arrangements are similarly recommendable
Zolotarev's performance of the monumental D minor Suite on the final CD is a fine piece of work but doesn't quite live up to the towering grandeur which Adrian Ruiz brings to it in his forty year old performance recently reissued by Genesis (GCD118 - review). Ruiz understands the epic scale of this piece and is master of the many pianistic nuances needed to by a performer to show it off at its best. It's unfortunate that it is coupled with a less than ideal performance of the Piano Sonata. As with the other recordings in this series, Zolotarev's coupling is a pair of fine renditions of Raff's Bach cello suite arrangements. Morton Estrin's offering by US label Newport Classics on a CD (NCD 60067)which is now rather hard to find and has a rather odd coupling in Scriabin's 12 Etudes - it's difficult to think of two composers further removed from each other in almost every musical way! It's a virtuoso performance which underscores the work's stature, whilst not quite matching Zolotarev or the majesty of Adrian Ruiz's performance. Unfortunately, Andrea Carnevali's effort for Phoenix Classics (PH 99508 - review) has little to recommend it. The central movements are on a par with Zolotarev's and Estrin's interpretation, but the leaden tempi in the outer ones make this a very frustrating listen. The coupling is Reubke's Piano Sonata.
Tra Nguyen's three disc survey of Raff's piano music for Grand Piano (GP602 - review) begins with a splendid CD containing three early works: the newly-discovered Fantaisie, the set of twelve Frühlingsboten and the Drei-Klavier-soli, all of which date from the 1850s. These very different works receive wonderfully idiomatic readings, by turns powerful and sensitive, and the whole CD is a powerful ambassador for Raff's music. Her second CD in the series (GP612 - review) in addition to the Fantasie-Sonata has a majestic performance of the giant Variations on an Original Theme and winning performances of the four pieces in the op.196 set: Im Schilf, Berceuse, Novellette and Impromptu. The third CD (GP634 - review)features two more sets of pieces: the nine-number Album Lyrique and the utterly delicious Cinq Eglogues, the only work which Raff dedicated to his wife. To round off the disc we have the utterly charming Impromptu-Valse and the Fantaisie-Polonaise. Many of the pieces in the two sets of volume 3 find Raff at his most poetically intense, allowing Nguyen to demonstrate a beguiling delicacy of touch. Taken as a whole, this series of CDs is an essential purchase for anyone interested in Raff's music and cannot be recommended with enough enthusiasm.
The only other significant piano work currently available is the Chaconne op.150. It is one of only two works which Raff wrote for two pianos and is treated to an enthusiastic and intelligent performance from Hitzlberger & Shültz, who capture the piece's varying moods most convincingly and also demonstrate Raff's ability to keep the textures clear. Also on the CPO disc (999 106) is some winning two-piano music from Reinecke and typically stolid material from Rheinberger. Recommendable for the Raff and Reinecke at least.
Three of Raff's arrangements of others' music provide substantial fare on three more CDs. Cyprian Katsaris programmes the fourth section of Raff's "Die Meistersingers" transcription in a thunderous virtuoso romp which alone would be worth the cost of the disc. Luckily this Sony CD (SK58973) has several more hugely enjoyable Wagner transcriptions by Raff's contemporaries. Well worth seeking out.
Alexander Zolotarev's lovely performance (Ars FCD 368 388 - review) of Raff's arrangement for piano of the first of the six J.S. Bach unaccompanied Cello Suites is also a winner, though its delicacy and charm could hardly be further removed from Katsaris' CD. He reprises this fine performance for AK Coburg on their CD of Raff Suites (DR 0006 - review). Both issues are highly recommended and there is little to choose between them, besides the coupling. The Cello Suite No.3 (DR 0007 - review), Nos.4 and 5 (DR 0008 -review) and Nos.3 and 6 (DR009 -review) are also now available in similarly fine performances from Zolotarev on AK Coburg, all coupled with a variety of Raff's own Suites for piano. Quite superb playing.
Walid Akl's rendition of the arrangement of Bach's Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 (Pavane ADW 7255 - review) is also good - perhaps the best performance on a CD with an otherwise indigestible programme.
A rather less monumental arrangement is Raff's op.45; his Reminiscences of Mozart's Don Juan. This delightful and cleverly put together confection is played with great panache and understated skill by Petronella Malan as part of an equally entrancing collection of Mozart transcriptions and arrangements by composers of the romantic era (Hänssler CD 98.231 - review). Well worth seeking out. Equally enjoyable is her survey of Beethoven arrangements, in which Raff figures through his transcription of the Romance for Violin & Orchestra No.1 (Hänssler CD 98.286 - review). Catherine Sarasin's account of the Two Verdi Paraphrases is just as satisfying on a CD which otherwise features opera paraphrases for flute an piano by a variety of composer virtuosi (Guild GMCD 7345 - review).
The final piano arrangement is this time by Liszt - of two excerpts from Raff's first opera "King Alfred". As part of Hyperion's review of the complete piano music of Liszt, the double-CD box (CDA 67101/2) features ten other opera transcriptions, all played by Andrew Howard with his usual precision. Hardly core Raff repertoire - but an interesting diversion.
Raff's smaller piano pieces were mostly written to keep food on the family table but are nonetheless usually more than just easy on the ear. One of the most played in its time was "La Fileuse". This spinning piece was one of those which maintained Raff's tenuous place in the recorded repertoire, through historic recordings which appeared on LP and later CD compilations.
The four early recordings and one piano roll performance by Vladimir de Pachman are all worth hearing for their historic interest but the only recommendable modern rendition comes from John O'Connor on a Telarc CD (CD-80313) featuring 17 such parlour favourites. Nicely played and without de Pachman's cuts. The final recommendation is of Alan Etherden's scintillating performance of the delightful (if admittedly slight) The Queen's Polka Caprice (Hunters Moon HMPCD 589). The Raff work is the last of the 22 in Etherden's consistently charming survey of "Enchanting Melodies" and it's well worth the wait.
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