Violin Concerto No.1 op.161, Suite for Solo Violin & Orchesta op.180 & La fée d'amour op.67
Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera, Conductor: Andrea Quinn, Violin: Tobias Ringborg.
Sterling CDS 1075 2008 DDD 76:52
Raff’s 1st Violin Concerto: a Major New Discovery
A review by Alan Howe
Never underestimate Raff! That is the message of this review. Just as you thought you had got a handle on Raff’s best orchestral music, along comes a new CD which adds yet another masterpiece to the list. The CD, from the indefatigable Bo Hyttner and his Sterling label, contains three pieces for violin and orchestra, all of them first recordings: La fée d’amour op.67 (1854), the Suite for Violin & Orchestra op.180 (1873) and the Violin Concerto No.1 in B minor op.161 (original version – 1870). Soloist is the Swedish violinist Tobias Ringborg and the Orchestra of Norrlands Opera, Umeå in Sweden is conducted by Englishwoman, Andrea Quinn.
La fée d’amour (The Fairy of Love), to which Raff gave the subtitle morceau caractéristique de concert (literally: "characteristic concert piece" or "concert piece with a distinctive character") is in fact virtually a concerto for violin and orchestra, albeit of moderate length and ambition (18+ minutes). (We should remember here, though, that Liszt’s two numbered piano concertos, written some five years earlier, are themselves of similar length.) Furthermore, although it does not employ Lisztian chromaticism, La fée d’amour is Lisztian in form, consisting as it does of three movements laid out in one continuous span. Musically, one is often reminded of Mendelssohn in Midsummer Night’s Dream mode – after all, this is explicitly "fairy" music. Thus woodwind chirpings and violin scurryings characterise the opening movement with its catchy main theme and the soloist is hard at work virtually throughout. The central slow section follows attacca with a beautiful cantilena typical of the composer and with further woodwind chirpings and shimmering strings suggesting a continuation of the fairy theme, the movement later rising to appropriately amorous climaxes. The finale, also following attacca, develops the opening allegro’s material, the mood being bright and cheerful almost throughout, although with a hint of mystery. An extended and very brilliant cadenza precedes the coda which scurries breathlessly to a quiet close on a high solo violin harmonic.
The performance of La fée d’amour is superb, as such a virtuoso piece demands. Ringborg alternates brilliant passagework with a soaring, singing line, lending the piece a wonderful brightness and sparkle entirely appropriate to its material. Quinn accompanies sensitively, never overburdening the work with undue heaviness and bringing out the Mendelssohnian innocence of Raff’s writing throughout. The work, although not in the first rank of Raff’s compositions, thus comes across as a thoroughly worthwhile and entertaining discovery.
Raff’s Suite is a quite different conception. This is no concerto, not even one in disguise: rather, it comprises five separate movements of baroque-style dances in romantic-era dress - an early example, in fact, of neo-classicism. The work begins with a Prelude, a lively movement in semi-moto perpetuo style; there then follow a stately Minuet which alternates courtly grandeur with more lyrical interludes and a Corrente which is a swift gallop for the soloist featuring a broader theme in the orchestra. The fourth movement Aria is a soulful, but dignified slow movement which rises to more passionate climaxes: for this reviewer the best music of the work is to be found here. The concluding movement, Il Moto Perpetuo, is just that – a breathless moto perpetuo with further exacting, rapid passagework for the soloist over a more flowing theme in the orchestra. Here one is reminded perhaps of the finale of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
Once again Ringborg steps fearlessly up to the mark. His playing is simply heroic in what must be unforgiving writing for the soloist over a 29-minute span and Quinn keeps her tireless orchestra on its toes, contributing to the exhilarating effect of the whole. This is great playing, but it is hard to avoid the impression that this is not actually Raff’s greatest music. True, the music is deliberately limited in style and range, but there is surely a want of truly memorable material here. Nevertheless, the Aria would make a superior encore for any jaded virtuoso.
The masterpiece on this CD, however, is Raff’s Violin Concerto No.1, performed here in its original version without the changes perpetrated by its dedicatee, August Wilhelmj. The latter’s "version" – actually a wholesale recomposition of the piece – involved transforming the solo part into one of "showy, outrageous virtuosity" (liner notes – see below), working in additional counterpoint, new harmonic procedures and heavier orchestration, and yet also making cuts amounting to approx. 7% of the score. What we now have in place of Wihelmj’s bloated, yet butchered travesty is Raff’s original conception in all its pristine beauty. And stunningly beautiful this concerto is. The first movement Allegro patetico (12:30) opens with a robust theme in the orchestra which is followed by a wonderfully lyrical inspiration for the soloist – one that will stay with you long after you have finished listening to the piece. There is also much lively passagework for the solo violin accompanied by the woodwind and the strings, as well as exciting tutti which give the movement true dynamism and momentum. Tension increases towards the end of the movement, culminating in a re-statement of the bold opening theme which, however, then dies away and leads attacca into the slow movement Andante non troppo (9:22). This begins with luminous orchestral string writing soon taken up by the solo violin in an inspired rhapsody. Eventually a tutti introduces a livelier section after which we return to the calmer mood of the beginning. The finale Allegro trionfale (7:03) also follows attacca with a memorable march theme pounded out by the orchestra and then taken up by the soloist. The pace is unrelenting: even chordal work from the solo violin cannot halt the movement’s momentum and both soloist and orchestra combine to bring the work to an appropriately triumphant conclusion.
With a violinist of less ability than Ringborg, Raff’s concerto might not make the impression it does here. His familiar virtues of extraordinary agility, secure intonation and a bright, shining tone are here allied to a level of interpretive ability fully up to the demands of the work. Raff requires a romantic, but not heavy approach; there is sentiment a-plenty, but not sentimentality. These are matters which Ringborg clearly understands well, and the result is more than a merely good performance – it is one which is thoroughly attuned to Raff’s aesthetic, the essence of which is "making more out of less". Quinn again proves herself a sympathetic accompanist: she imparts plenty of momentum to the outer movements while never overpowering Ringborg and provides a near-ideal backdrop to the soloist’s rhapsodising in the central section. The acoustic of the Umeå Concert Hall is generous, if rather on the resonant side for ideal clarity, but this is a minor point in such a convincing presentation of Raff’s masterwork.
Make no mistake: this is a major unknown Romantic-era violin concerto. Burnett R. Toskey, in his indispensable reference work Concertos for Violin and Viola: a Comprehensive Encyclopedia, writes as follows: "This music is of dynamic dramatic character. It is a work of major proportions, and is exceptionally melodious and pleasing, yet highly original in style. It is a brilliant showpiece for the performer." Tobias Ringborg himself has said of the recording under review: "I am very happy and grateful to have recorded these pieces. It was extremely hard work (I have never practiced that much in my life...), but really and truly worthwhile!"
We are now therefore beginning to see more clearly the wider context of the development of the violin concerto in the broad German tradition in this period. Up until recently little thought was given to repertoire beyond the well-known violin concertos of Mendelssohn (1844), Bruch (No.1, 1868) and Brahms (1878); even Bruch’s Second (1878) and Third (1891) concertos have remained relatively neglected. Although some attention has been given to those by Schumann (1853), Goldmark (1877) and Richard Strauss (1881-2), a number of other very fine, clearly repertoire-worthy violin concertos have now emerged. Examples include those by Joseph Joachim (No.2 in D minor "Hungarian", 1857, and No.3 in G major, 1864), Hermann Goetz (G major, 1868), Johan Svendsen (A major, 1868-70 – a Norwegian composer whose concerto was completed and first performed in Leipzig), Albert Dietrich (D minor, 1873), Reinhold Becker (No.1 in A minor, 1876, as yet unrecorded), Carl Reinecke (G minor, 1876), Emil Hartmann (G minor, 1876 – a Danish composer, but just as much part of the German musical scene), Friedrich Gernsheim (No.1 in D major, 1879, unrecorded), Niels Gade (D minor, 1880 – another Danish composer, but very much of the Leipzig school) and Ignaz Brüll (A minor, 1882, also unrecorded). The fine concerto in G major (1857) by the Russian, Anton Rubinstein, also belongs to this tradition. And now, to add to his Second Violin Concerto (A minor, 1877), we have Raff’s First in its original version, which may just be the most important rediscovery of them all. Never have the world’s great violinists had such riches from which to choose…
In short, the new CD is a triumph. Add to all this scholarly and perceptive liner-notes by US composer and Raff-expert, Dr Avrohom Leichtling – to whose insights this writer is greatly indebted – and we have not only a musical feast, but a musicological one as well.
Finally, but most importantly, we owe an immense debt of gratitude to Mark Thomas for his part in establishing the whereabouts of the original score of the 1st Violin Concerto and to the forum poster who first alerted him. Mark’s efforts have been suitably rewarded with this magnificent recording.
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