No.2 op.140, Suite for Orchestra Aus Thüringen WoO.45
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Hans Stadlmair
Tudor 7102 2002 DDD 72:50
Writing reviews of Hans Stadlmair's ongoing survey of Raff's orchestral music is beginning to get repetitive - but for the best of reasons. Having been treated to successive impressive readings of the Lenore and "Im Walde" Symphonies, Rafficionados have been waiting with impatience for this issue which concentrates on one of the master's lesser known scores - the Symphony No.2. For anyone lucky enough to hear Stadlmair and his Bambergers play the work live in their home town in a December 2000 concert preceding this recording, the wait has been an especially frustrating one, so satisfying was their performance on that occasion.
So, has the wait been worth it?
The answer is of course an enthusiastic "yes". In fact, this CD in some ways outshines the earlier disks in the series. The recording of the Symphony is generally a faithful reproduction of that live performance in Bamberg and the review of that concert will serve as a detailed description of Stadlmair's interpretation. In sum, though, Stadlmair plays Raff's works as if they were standard repertoire pieces, with a long performing tradition to which he is adding his contribution. There is a directness and confidence which communicates itself to the listener - no worrying about the need to convince that this music is worth hearing after such long neglect. In this work in particular, Stadlmair demonstrates that he has Raff's measure. He recognises that the music needs momentum - even Raff's slow movements aren't usually that slow. Transparency of texture is another essential, so that all the clever details of orchestration can be appreciated. He doesn't try to hide Raff's characteristic use of repetition, rather he uses it (as Raff intended) to build tension and to underline the dynamic contrasts in the score.
This isn't the Symphony's recording premiere of course - it has been available since 1994 as part of Urs Schneider's cycle for Marco Polo. That recording was amongst the best in the series, with Schneider's interpretation being tauter than in some of the other symphonies and with timings pretty much on a par with Stadlmair's. Nonetheless it is completely eclipsed by this new release.
They are both at their best in the Allegro Vivace scherzo, but generally Schneider shows less of the excitement, light and shade, pathos, pace and poetry which Stadlmair finds in the whole score. Neither are the Marco Polo recording engineers nor the orchestra in the same league. There really is no contest.
The contrast between the competing versions of the very generous coupling, the Orchestral Suite "From Thüringia" is, if anything, even more telling. Although popular in Raff's lifetime, the Thüringian Suite has a less genial and more four-square character than its Italian and Hungarian predecessors. These characteristics were emphasised by the only previous recording, in which the Slovakian Kosice orchestra was directed by Richard Edlinger in one of the earliest Marco Polo offerings. Once again, Stadlmair has worked his magic.
Although still not perhaps as smile-inducing as some Raff, the Suite comes across as a much more lovable work than one would have believed.
The opening "Salus Intransibus" is given a welcome snap and sparkle for instance, which counterbalances its tendency to German earnestness. The "Elizabethenhymne" movement, commemorating Thüringia's patron saint, is properly solemn without any hint of stodginess and its closing moments are beautifully judged. There is a genial puckish air to the middle movement with its stereotypically Raffian picture of dancing gnomes and sylphs - perhaps the movement with least interest. The writing is pretty virtuosic, though, and the Bambergers rise to the challenge with relish. The fourth movement does have real substance - a fine set of good natured and inventive variations on a folksong from the region. Raff did this sort of thing very well and again the musicians respond to Stadlmair's flexible tempi impeccably, demonstrating too a beguiling blend of delicacy and accurate ensemble in the quieter variations. The jaunty dance rhythms of the closing "Country Fair" are judged to perfection and the more serious contrasting material is played with an affectingly gentle touch - the two being integrated very nicely at the close and without a trace of bombast.
By adopting lightness of touch coupled with precision and wit, this Suite - sober and plodding in other hands - stands revealed as a good natured and affectionate portrait, capable of standing alongside its Italian and Hungarian companions in our affections.
As we have come to expect from Tudor, the sound is well rounded and detailed. The booklet notes by Alfred Beaujean are certainly adequate, without unfortunately shedding any fresh light on the these two works or the circumstances of their composition.
A must-buy for any Raff enthusiast.
Luis de Orueta has commented on this review:
I read with great interest the reviews by Mark Thomas of each new recording and can only praise his great insight. Mark invites us to comment and I take this opportunity to share my views with you and even reach Hans Stadlmair if he ever reads the Forum messages. My remark concerns his rendering of the first movement in Raff´s Second Symphony. Admittedly, the movement begins in a "jolly" mood, but it seems wrong to me to make this mood pervade the whole section. As I hear the music I cannot help feeling that his version doesn't "separate enough" the many different "moods" which can be traced down within the movement: happy, persuasive, contemplative, impatient, exhausted, resigned, pastoral, apologetic, etc. Probably that means that the tempo ought to be a little bit slower to allow more space between those psychological almost subliminal, mood changes. Easier said than done, I know, with limited rehearsing. In any case a vast improvement over the alternative available. For the rest of the symphony I agree entirely with Mark Thomas, and thank Hans Stadlmair for a wonderful experience.. and look forward with impatience to his coming next recording.
Luis de Orueta
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