Raff: Symphonies No 8-11 / W.a. Albert

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Joachim Raff (1822–82) does not exactly fall into the category of obscure or off-the-beaten path, but he is clearly not well known or widely recorded. Here was an exceptionally prolific composer— just look at the opus numbers above—who wrote in virtually every genre of the day: opera, oratorio, concerto, chamber works, tone poems, symphonies, piano sonatas, solo piano pieces. Largely forgotten, too, is the fact that Liszt, who early on was not particularly adept at orchestration, turned over the piano scores of some of his early tone poems to Raff to orchestrate. Yet Raff receives short shrift in most of the music histories, and I can’t recall ever hearing anything by Raff programmed in concert. It is worth quoting at length from an article by Dr. Alan Krueck, professor of music at California University of Pennsylvania:

"There is perhaps no other composer so admired, enjoyed, honored, and respected whose music fell victim to such profound neglect and even derision within so short a period after his death, than Joseph Joachim Raff. From 1860 to 1900, the name of Joachim Raff was mentioned in the same breath as Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms as a leading master in German music. Recognized internationally as one of the truly great composers, every concert guide existing at the turn of the century exalted him to a level of post-Beethovenian symphonic achievement otherwise reserved only for Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky not only openly admired Raff but used him as a model as well, imitating Raff to the point of subconscious quotes, so deep was the influence."

By 1920, after the First World War, even Raff’s most celebrated works had faded from the repertoire, his name synonymous with the silly and the sentimental, a periwinkle tunesmith engendering teardrops at tea time in the salon. The derision was often laced with malice—a biographer of Edward MacDowell claimed that the noted American composer had ruined his talent by studying with Raff.

Born in Lachen, Switzerland, of a family originally from German Swabia, Raff was auto-didactic in his musical education—encouraged first by Mendelssohn and later by Liszt. Liszt took him on as amanuensis and musical confidante at Weimar in the early 1850s. From 1855 to 1878 Raff worked independently in Wiesbaden, writing most of his successful compositions. In 1878, he was named the first director of the recently founded Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory of Music in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he remained until his death four years later. Allied early in his career with Liszt and the New German School, Raff dared to question Wagner’s ideas polemically. Unwanted by the conservatives, and himself rejecting the circle with which he was most often associated, he isolated himself between the two most important poles of musical politics during his life. An impeccable craftsman for whom all matters of music were second nature, he could be totally uncritical of the materials he used in his compositions, placing movements of soaring inspiration and incredible invention next to ones of embarrassing dross, pairing the simpleminded with the sublime.

The last four of Raff’s 11 symphonies, written between 1876 and 1878, set out an ambitious project, to write not just four movements of a single work each depicting one of the four seasons, but four full-scale four-movement symphonies depicting the seasonal cycle. Chronologically, they were composed neither in the normal procession I’ve given in the headnote nor in the order they are laid out on the discs (which is No. 8, “Spring;” No. 10, “Autumn;” No. 9, “Summer;” and No. 11, “Winter”). The actual order of composition seems to have been Spring, Winter, Summer, Autumn. Does it really make a difference? And the answer is no; for other than the fact that Spring is in a major key (the only one of the four that is), absent from these scores are the two elements you would most expect in such a cycle. There is no obvious tone painting, an attempt to depict musically the various and sundry physical and emotional characteristics we tend to associate with the seasons of the year. Secondarily, as the excellent booklet note points out, “the existence of a motivic inventive core varied and inserted into changing contexts is among the obvious expectations of such a tetralogy, but such a core is lacking.” In other words, there is nothing that ties these four symphonies together, that makes them part of a unified cycle. Each can be listened to as a completely separate, self-contained work. All are essentially abstract music, with little or no tone-painting allusions to their titles; and none is related contextually or motivically one to the other.

I think Dr. Krueck’s assessment is a bit harsh when he refers to movements of “incredible invention next to ones of embarrassing dross, pairing the simpleminded with the sublime.” Raff’s general style is heavy on Liszt’s tone poems, but with frequent recollections of Mendelssohn, as in the second movement scherzo of the “Spring” Symphony, aptly titled “Walpurgisnacht,” which actually bears a remarkable resemblance to the Finale of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony.

Bottom line: if you thrill to Liszt’s Les preludes and Mazeppa and would love to hear something in similar vein but by someone else for a change, or if you love the symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann, Raff is your man. Like many another wonderful composer of the same period whose name and works have been forgotten, Raff suffered the misfortune of being caught between the twin vortices—Wagner and Brahms—that dominated the climate of the times and scattered to the winds everything that came within their spheres. There were so many fine composers writing magnificent symphonic and chamber music during this period, and today we are barely aware they existed.

I think you are going to be won over by Raff. If the Elegie of the Tenth Symphony (“Autumn”) doesn’t “engender teardrops at tea time,” I don’t know what will. Once again cpo is to be commended for their service to the “also-rans,” and it should be noted that, arkivmusic.com notwithstanding, all of Raff’s symphonies are available on cpo. Another cycle with the Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic (Košice) under Urs Schneider can be found on Marco Polo, but these may be even more difficult to come by. In any case, the cpo discs at hand, with the Philharmonia Hungarica under Werner Andreas Albert, are stunning. Buy this set and I promise you will not be disappointed.

Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 999536-2

  • UPC: 761203953622

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Joachim Raff

  • Conductor: Werner Andreas Albert

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra