Symphony No.2 op.140, Orchestral Preludes to Shakespeare's Plays: The Tempest WoO.49, Macbeth WoO.50, Romeo & Juliet WoO.51 and Othello WoO.52
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Conductor: Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHSA 5117 2013 DDD SACD 77:47
How many times have Raff enthusiasts wished for a recording of one of his major orchestral works by a front rank conductor and a world-class orchestra? Not that many of the existing recordings haven't served Raff well; Stadlmair's symphony cycle for example has, with the odd misgiving, provided us with more than merely serviceable performances. And yet the suspicion (or maybe the hope) remains that, were Raff accorded interpreters of the standing routinely enjoyed by Brahms or Mahler, then the true stature of his creations would at last be revealed. For good or ill, we need speculate no more, for here is the first of what Chandos has promised to be a series of recordings of Raff symphonies, coupled with smaller orchestral works, from one of the world's great conductors, leading an orchestra of the first rank.
Cannily, Järvi and Chandos have chosen to begin their series with the Second Symphony, one of Raff's finest essays in the genre, but by no means his best known. Järvi takes an expansive view of the opening Allegro; his reading is actually around a minute longer than either Schneider or Stadlmair's, but it never sounds laboured or lacking in that characteristic essential for a Raff opening movement: momentum. What strikes one straight away, even listening to this SACD on a normal CD player, is that the combination of Järvi's attention to detail in his interpretation and the legendary depth and clarity of the Chandos sound, gives us a richer and more luminous Raff than we have ever heard before. The many delightful details in orchestration, glossed over even by Stadlmair, are here faithfully recorded in a glorious acoustic. This, coupled with the virtuosity of the Geneva orchestra, at last means that we can hear a Raff symphony as it should be heard, and the music can be judged fairly on its own merits.
The Andante con moto second movement will come as a shock. It is taken substantially faster than we are used to hearing it: 7:26 against Stadlmair's 10:29 and Schneider's 9:54. Undoubtedly something of the solemnity which one is used to hearing is lost in the speeding up, but who is to say that Raff intended it to be so weighty? Raff's metronome marking is ¼ = 92, which is hardly a slow tempo. While it is certainly radically faster than we are used to hearing, it isn't fast; rather, Järvi has imbued it with the "motion" which Raff requests in his tempo indication. The result is music which in places is much more dramatic than it previously seemed to have the capacity to be; music which is utterly thrilling in the climaxes. The piece still contrasts sufficiently with the movements either side of it, and now serves to emphasise the vibrancy and joyousness of the whole work, rather than acting as a counterweight to the other three movements. I am quite convinced that Järvi's is a valid and, indeed, persuasive interpretation.
The Allegro vivace scherzo is given a similar performance to those it receives from Järvi's rivals, but of course it benefits greatly from the quality of the orchestra and the recording itself. In the closing Allegro con spirito Järvi again puts his foot to the floor, shaving half a minute off his rivals' timings. Although this demands playing of stunning virtuosity from the Suisse Romande orchestra, it's all to good effect, producing a breathlessly satisfying finish to the work, which nonetheless manages to loose nothing of the weight and conviction demanded of a symphonic finale. Under Järvi's baton, the symphony glows from beginning to end and, despite the unorthodox tempo of the slow movement, his is now unequivocally my Raff's Second of choice.
The Shakespeare Preludes are almost the last orchestral works which Raff wrote and have a very different character to the symphony. They are effectively illustrative symphonic poems, devoid of traditional musical structure. The four works have been poorly served on CD: Stadlmair's performances are amongst his most lacklustre interpretations, but are still improvements on Schneider (Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet) and D'Avalos (Romeo & Juliet). If anything, Järvi and his orchestra's committed and enthusiastic approach to these orchestral showpieces, recorded in sumptuously detailed sound, has wrought even more of a transformation than the symphony has benefitted from. It is a joy to hear them as if for the first time.
The most compact work, Othello, receives a powerful performance, with every last drop of passion, nervous energy and drama squeezed out of it. In common with the other preludes, the work is built from a number of clearly identifiable lietmotifs (in this case just three: one each to represent Othello, Desdemona and Iago). Here, and in the other pieces, Järvi manages to maintain the work's propulsive momentum, whilst at the same time properly delineating the rapidly changing kaleidoscopic episodes which Raff builds from various combinations of his lietmotifs. It is an appropriately feverish and dark interpretation. The musical range of Macbeth is greater, but it receives just as compelling a performance, and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande clearly revel in the opportunities it gives as a showpiece. The spectrally skirling woodwinds in the witches' music and the blazing brass in the peroration of Malcolm's theme at the close are just two highlights in this very exciting performance.
To be honest, I've never thought much of Raff's Romeo & Juliet, which is inevitably overshadowed by Tchaikovsky's great work. Perhaps conditioned by that masterpiece one waits in vain for the "big tune", but that's to misread Raff's intention. He sees the play primarily as a dramatic tragedy, not a love story, and so his work has more in common with the fast-paced action of Othello and Macbeth. Again Järvi makes a good case for the piece as a dramatic work, even though one would still be hard pressed to guess its subject. The longest work of the four, The Tempest, is rather more rambling than the other three closely-argued scores and under Stadlmair it seems at best an attractive but disjointed work. Compared to that performance, Järvi has tightened it up substantially and in the process revealed a much more coherent piece which, whilst it remains more episodic than the other three, benefits from his brisk tempi, giving it a clear narrative flow and maintaining the listener's interest.
It is tedious, I know, reading a review jam-packed with superlatives, but one more is due: to Raff doyen Avrohom Leichtling for squeezing so much useful information about the music into the small space allotted him in the booklet notes. All in all, this is a fabulous Raff debut for Järvi, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Chandos. These are intelligent and exciting interpretations, superbly played and favoured with a recording of demonstration quality. Let us hope that this, and the recordings which follow in the series, propel Raff's star nearer to its rightful place in the musical firmament.
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