No.8 Frühlingsklänge op.205, Symphony No.9 Im Sommer op.208, Symphony
No.10 Zur Herbstzeit op.213, Symphony
No.11 Der Winter op.214
Philharmonia Hungarica, Conductor: Werner Andreas Albert
cpo 999 536 2004 DDD 152:23 (2CDs)
In the early 1990s cpo announced plans for a complete Raff symphonic cycle, and went on to record Albert and the Philharmonia Hungarica playing not only the symphonies but all of the orchestral music. It was the German label's first co-production with a radio station and, rumour has it, the contract between them backfired. So, although all the recordings were broadcast in Germany over the intervening decade, none appeared on CD. Until now. Having seen Tudor pick up the baton they dropped, cpo has returned to the race with this mid-price set of the four "Seasons" symphonies.
They have done their homework - the competition is not very compelling. Marco Polo and Naxos offer rushed readings of the two longest works, Nos.8 and 9, squeezed onto one CD, with the other two split over two more discs. Like cpo's, these recordings date from the early 1990s. The Tudor offerings are due to be replaced by modern readings from Stadlmair and the Bambergers, already in the can, but for now they offer 1980s recordings of an underpowered Basel orchestra under four different conductors. So this "new" issue from a respected team should have the field to itself.
What a disappointment, then, to report that this set is seriously flawed both technically and artistically.
The sound quality is recessed and dull throughout the set, but is particularly bad in the Spring symphony where the violins obscure much of the detail coming from the rest of the orchestra. As well as having the worst sound in the set, cpo's No.8 seems to have several poor splices between takes - at 2:52 into the first movement for example. Not very impressive. Juggling your sound equipment's controls should restore some brilliance to the aural atmosphere, but the overall impression is of a set of off-air radio dubs, rather than recordings made direct from masters.
Marco Polo's sound is certainly brighter, if thinner, but Tudor's warm and resonant acoustic gives their recordings a real advantage in the technical stakes. To be fair to cpo, it has become clear since this review was published that not all copies of this set suffer from poor quality sound in the Symphony No.8 recording. It is equally clear that my set was not unique. If you have the chance, try to sample that work before you buy!
Turning to interpretive issues, every movement benefits from Albert's timings being consistently longer than Schneider's, who is often way too fast. Albert is no slouch, however, which makes it all the more puzzling that his first movements all somehow lack the punch and momentum which properly characterise Raff's opening Allegros. To be sure, the lacklustre sound deadens the dynamic contrast, but there's not quite enough variation of tempi, not quite enough building up of tension - they're all a bit bland. Matters do improve - the middle movements are generally more successful and all the finales are convincing in their drive and energy.
The recording of the 8th. is the least successful of these four works. As well as the especially poor sound and the splicing glitches, the usually reliable Philharmonia Hungarica is in spectacularly scrappy form. It all sounds more like a test recording of a first rehearsal than a finished product. The Tudor performance, conducted by György Lehel, is much to be preferred.
The 9th. is very much better, with the players back to their normal form. The first movement never quite excites as it should, but the elfin scherzo fairly zips along and the contrast with Albert's sensitive and gently paced reading of the beautiful Ekloge is very telling. One of the few undeniable plusses of this set is that for the first time we can hear the finale complete. Both Schneider and Tudor's Auberson present the movement bereft of its development section - fully a third of the whole. The uncut finale restores balance to the whole symphony and a much more effective piece it is. Its inclusion swings the verdict in his favour over Auberson, although elsewhere there's not much to choose between them.
The story is pretty much the same for the beautiful No.10. Albert's reading is very similar to that from Tudor's Francis Travis. His opening Allegro moderato is faster but a trifle humdrum. The ghostly dances of the second movement are spiky and appropriately ghoulish and the Elegie is quite beautifully played - a magical few minutes. The hunt finale is exciting and the horn calls in particular are highly effective.
In some ways, the most surprising work in this set is No.11 - a work which Raff put aside. The degree to which Erdmannsdörfer altered the unfinished torso to make it performable is not now known, but it certainly does not represent Raff at anywhere near his best. That said, Albert makes a better case for the work than either Schneider or Vanzago, on Tudor. The opening movement plays down the potential for snowy pictorialism but it has more light and shade than the others in this set. The homely Larghetto is a bit brisk, but the finale manages to be celebratory without making Schneider's mistake of undue haste. The work isn't prime Raff (it doesn't even sound like Raff), but Albert has made as good a case for it as one can imagine being made.
The most satisfying work here is the Summer symphony, No.9. It's far from being an ideal performance but, especially bearing in mind the uncut finale, it is the best of a middling bunch. The same can broadly be said for Albert's performance of the Winter symphony. Neither are towering readings, but they are better than what we have had up to now. His No.10 is very similar to Travis', but the latter's horn players are superb and his sound engineers did a better job too. The new No.8 is a let down on so many fronts that it doesn't merit serious consideration over the Tudor alternative.
Matthias Wiegandt's scholarly and readable insert notes are the only thing about this issue which can be recommended without some qualification. After waiting for a decade, this is a great disappointment. The set can be recommended for completists who want the uncut finale to the 9th. or to those who only have the Marco Polo recordings. If you already own the Tudor CDs, wait and see what their replacements from Stadlmair are like.
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