De Profundis op.140, Te Deum WoO.16, Vier Marianischen Antiphonen WoO.27, Pater Noster WoO.32 and Ave Maria WoO.33
Karlstad Kammerchör, Stockholm Singers, Susanna Andersson (soprano), Göteburg Operaorkester, conducted by Henrik Schaefer and Bo Aurehl.
Sterling CDS 1098 2012 DDD 79:59
Despite the explosion of Raff recordings in the last decade, his sizeable catalogue of vocal music has been neglected. So it is a very welcome development that Sterling has followed up its ground breaking issue of secular works for chorus and orchestra (CDS 1089 - review) with a CD packed with his devotional music, all of it receiving its recording premiere. It's very much a disc of two halves, though, with two works for chorus and orchestra taking 50 minutes, followed by six a capella pieces in the remaining half hour.
Raff's setting of the Te deum laudamus is an early piece from 1851, lasting 10 minutes. It was a Church commission, to be sung at the investiture of a Grand Duke. Whilst not top-notch Raff, it's a very attractive piece; the outer, appropriately celebratory, sections sandwich a more reflective and lyrical central passage. Recording works for choir and orchestra is notoriously difficult and, whilst the balance between the two forces is fine in the central Te ergo quaesumus section, the orchestra is very much to the fore in the outer sections, and Raff's forceful writing for it at the beginning almost drowns out the choir's entry, giving an unrepresentatively poor impression at the very start of this disc. That issue aside, Henrik Schaefer delivers a robust, well-paced and contrasted performance of this straightforward music. The Gothenburg Opera Orchestra have the weight and assurance to carry it off with aplomb, and the combined choir sings with gusto and enthusiasm.
The setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis, comes next in the programme and is a completely different animal. Composed 16 years later, it is work of Raff's maturity. It was written as a peace offering to Liszt, to patch up the sniping ill-feeling between them which had lasted for 10 years. It's a substantial piece lasting 40 minutes which, in Schaefer's magisterial and carefully judged interpretation, comes across as a work of real stature, the solemn tone of which is set by the short orchestral introduction. The opening choral section, De Profundis, is a heartfelt, mournfully lyrical Andante con moto which gradually builds to a magnificently despairing climax on "ad te" (to You). Schaefer's pacing and control of dynamics here is very satisfying, aided throughout by the choirs' nicely graded and carefully phrased contribution. Si iniquitates is another Andante, this time for two men's choruses. Raff combines their separate melodies into a canon and the section builds to a succession of impassioned climaxes before quickly collapsing back into despairing silence. Once again, Shaefer's subtlety in marshalling his forces is matched by the superb responsiveness of singers and players. It's impressive music, impressively performed. Quia apud te, the fourth section, relieves the previous gloom. One glimpses Raff the opera composer in Susanna Andersson's intensely lyrical aria, sung with just the right amount of consoling warmth. She is supported by the women alone this time, while the orchestra provides low-key decorative accompaniment.
The choir unites for the fifth section, A custodia, which begins with an arresting slow crescendo as Raff indulges in a depiction of dawn (the opening words are "From the morning watch"). Leaving the spare bleakness of the work's opening pages firmly behind, the music is best described as dramatically ecstatic. Perhaps inevitably, Raff concludes with a fugue. For the most part he sets Et ipse rediment as a double fugue in eight voices! After a call to action from the orchestra, Schaefer builds Raff's tour de force into a grandly impressive finale to the work, ending with a series of Amens, at first reverential and then joyful. In Schaefer's hands, De Profundis, is a magnificent piece. His thoughtful control of phrasing, tempi and dynamics and, above all, sensitivity to the musical and emotional arc which Raff built into this large-scale work, make for deeply satisfying listening. The balance issues of the Te Deum are absent here, allowing both the subtleties and the power of the choral and orchestral contributions to come through. This is a great addition to the Raff discography.
The CD contains one second short of 80 minutes of music, but this generosity comes with a minor disadvantage: it is very closely tracked. This isn't really a problem except in the transition from the blazing end of De Profundis to the start of the a cappella Pater Noster, recorded in a very different acoustic, and the effect is unfortunately rather jarring the first time one experiences it. Gothenburg's Concert Hall was the recording venue for the orchestral pieces, but a Stockholm church was used for the purely vocal recordings.
The six a capella pieces on this disc were all written in the late 1860s and none were published, or probably even performed, in Raff's lifetime. There's no surprise in this because they would have seemed anachronistic in the extreme to Raff's contemporaries. In them Raff, always a student of music's past, returned to the ecclesiastical music of the Italian renaissance, exploring Palestrina's world without, unlike in his various piano, instrumental and orchestral suites, attempting to bring the medium into the 19th century by incorporating romantic ideas of melody or harmony. Ever the autodidact, he probably wrote them for his own enjoyment, as intellectual exercises.
The two longer pieces, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria which follows it, are motets for eight voices in which Raff closely imitates Palestrina's style, only occasionally employing harmonic shifts which the 16th century would have avoided. Raff's usual strong melodic line is largely submerged in lushly overlapping layers of rolling polyphony. The final set of short Marian Antiphons (works which praise the Virgin Mary) lasts around 14 minutes and the four pieces themselves, written for five, six or eight voices, tend to employ more austere, sparer textures than the first two motets. Despite all this music probably being written as a series of academic exercises, and in a style three centuries out of date, these are works of great beauty which could not have a better showcase than they receive in these sonorous, many-layered performances from the Karlstad and Stockholm choirs. Bo Aurehl, who takes over the conductor's baton for the a capella works, takes them at a moderate, but never dragging, pace and the effect is of music which unfolds naturally, in it's own good time. The vocal lines are clearly delineated, but coalesce into a serenely satisfying overall sound which is in dramatic contrast to the passionate romanticism of the Te Deum and De Profundis. A CD of two halves certainly, but the sum is greater than the parts.
Avrohom Leichtling's 23 page essay in the booklet is, as one has come to expect from this most insightful of Raff scholars, invaluable; especially so, for those unfamiliar with the idiom, in his discussion of the background to the a capella pieces. This CD only falls short of five stars because of the balance problems at the start of the Te Deum, but is otherwise a thoroughly recommendable exploration of Raff's fascinatingly varied religious music.
you are finding it difficult to buy this CD,the "Where
to buy CDs" page may help.
Do you disagree with this review, or would like to air your own opinions of the CD? Why not submit your own review?