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Flights of imagination

ROBERT ANDERSON listens to Raff symphonies

CD Review

It seems likely that no European Commission, however fuddled its thinking or footling its actions, will get Raff (1822-82) back into copyright and hence realise his boast that descendents could live imperially off is royalties. They never did so, alas, but there is every chance that the omniumgatherum policy of CD companies and the dawn of a new millennium conscious that its own products will make Raff seem an indispensable immortal, may give him a second wind. He deserves to be heard. There are half-a-dozen operas, eleven symphonies and five concertos to be going on with, and there is no reason why his future should depend on that thin thread of Raffishness we know as the Cavatina for violin and piano, No 3 of the opus 85 Morceaux. Nearly all the symphonies have titles, with nothing more arresting than the superscriptions to No 6, 'Lived, Struggled, Suffered, Fought, Died, was Glorified'. Most are concerned with such natural phenomena as forests, mountains, and the seasons. He had a strange career that began in abject poverty and ended with the directorship of the Frankfurt Conservatoire. Along the way he became an accomplished contrapuntist and master of the orchestra.

It was his skill at scoring that took him to Weimar as a protegé of Liszt. They had met in the most unlikely circumstances, when Raff sat in an ever-increasing puddle of water on the platform at Liszt's side, having walked from Zurich to Basel in a downpour to hear the great pianist. Liszt was sufficiently impressed by his devotion and his compositions to find him a job in Cologne. Then came the call to Weimar and a period in which Liszt produced Raff's first opera, King Alfred, and Raff had a couple of months in jail for unpaid debts. At the time Raff was a more experienced orchestral composer than Liszt, and it was his task to fill out Liszt's full-score suggestions with ideas that were ultimately to be corrected by Liszt himself. Princess Carolyne saw the dangers: 'I may be stupid, but it seems to me that this style, this dress, this clothing of the thought to which you rightly attach such importance, always suffers if it is first indicated or suggested by someone other than the genius who created the work'. Raff came to exaggerate what he did for Liszt, but the essential fact remains that at the end of their association there was not one master of the orchestra, there were two.

Raff: Symphonies. Copyright (c) 1999 Hyperion Records Ltd., LondonAll the surviving Raff symphonies are post-Weimar, and there is hardly a trace of Liszt in them. Formally, Raff sticks to classical models. He likes variations, resourceful developments, and a good stirring of counterpoint. Maybe there is a dash of Lisztian harmony; but mostly Raff is his own man, with Mendelssohn as backup, notably in the Scherzo of No 3. He can produce enchanting orchestral effects. The transition into the second tune of No 4, one of the nameless symphonies, is a case in point. . The obstinate rhythm is given wing by the fine song of the cellos. Equally happy in No 3, Im Walde, is the wood magic of the symphony's opening Allegro, when quiet horns evoke the chatterbox activity of forest birds and creatures. The slow movement of No 4 is a free set of variations on a theme that initially promises as little as Beethoven's Diabelli snippet. First Raff conjures a ravishing counterpoint on the bassoon, and this he follows up with a still more wonderful flight of imagination for the oboe.

The Milton Keynes City Orchestra has chosen to tread symphonic byways: but the disc, with playing at once sensitive and alert under Hilary Davan Wetton, suggests the team could commendably tackle anything that appeared on their desks.

Copyright © Robert Anderson, September 1st 1999


Joachim RAFF

Symphony No 4 in G minor Op 167
Symphony No 3 in F major Op 153 'Im Walde' / 'In the Forest'

The Milton Keynes City Orchestra
Diana Cummings, leader
Hilary Davan Wetton, conductor

helios (Hyperion) CDH 55017          DDD            TT: 79'11

Recorded on 30,31 October 1988
Recording Engineer: Anthony Howell
Recording Producer: Mark Brown
Cover Design: Terry Shannon
Booklet Editor: Ben Crighton
Executive Producers: Joanna Gamble, Kenneth Chaproniere

(P) Hyperion Records Ltd., London, 1993
(C) Hyperion Records Ltd., London, 1999

Originally released on Hyperion CDA 66626

Front illustration: The Forest (1856) by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)


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