Raff: Sonatillen For Violin & Piano, Morceaux De Salon / Neftel, Le Van
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BRAHMS Piano Sonata No. 2. Scherzo, op. 4. 4 Ballades, op. 10 • Eric Le Van (pn) • GALLO 1203 (60:56)
RAFF Sonatillen for violin and piano, op. 99. 6 Morceaux de salon for violin and piano , op. 85 • Michaela Paetsch Neftel (vn); Eric Le Van (pn) • TUDOR 7109 (67:45)
I’m reviewing these two CDs under cover of a combined double headnote because neither of them is new—the Brahms dates from 2001, the Raff from 2003. The Brahms, however, is a follow-up to an earlier Gallo disc containing Brahms’s First and Third sonatas, which was reviewed by Bernard Jacobson in 22:2. As for the Raff Tudor disc, to the best of my knowledge, this was the first, and thus far, only recording of the composer’s op. 99 Sonatillen and op. 85 Morceaux complete. Spread over two CPO CDs, violinist Ingolf Turban recorded the Sonatillen Nos. 4 thru 7 (on 999769) and the Nos. 1 thru 3, 9, and 10 (on 777006). Both were reviewed by Robert Maxham in 28:2 and 31:3, respectively; but as you can see, No. 8 is conspicuously absent. As for the Morceaux —there are six of them—only the third in the set, the “Cavatina,” shows up on a Profil recording by Patrice Fontanarosa, which was likewise reviewed by Maxham in 32:5.
Let me address Le Van’s Brahms CD first. I haven’t heard the prequel containing the First and Third sonatas, but this album containing the Second Sonata, the E?-Minor Scherzo, and the Four Ballades is a real stunner. Launching into the powerful opening of the Sonata with hands and fingers of steel, Le Van commands enormous muscular strength as well as fearless musical conviction. Brahms may have been only 20 when he composed this formidable score, but it strides with a manly swagger that would turn into a somewhat more modest bearing in his later works for solo piano. Le Van pulls out all the stops and goes full throttle in the big, showy passages, but he also demonstrates he’s capable of sustaining the long line in Brahms’s gloriously sweeping Romantic gestures. The recording, too, made in Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, with Le Van playing a Hamburg Steinway D, is simply amazing, one of the best piano discs I’ve heard. The instrument’s bass has tremendous depth to it, and the acoustic of the hall is open and spacious without imparting any blurring reverb.
The E?-Minor Scherzo actually predates the Second Sonata by a year or two, though it was published with a later opus number. Many of Brahms’s recognizable fingerprints are on the score, but it seems to be a bit lacking in the formal discipline and coherence the composer would soon come to impose on his works. The piece is said to be influenced by Chopin’s scherzos, an allegation Brahms denied. Le Van certainly plays it as brilliantly as anyone I know, which would include Julius Katchen, Wilhelm Backhaus, and, more recently, Hardy Rittner, who has been working his way through Brahms’s solo piano music on instruments of the composer’s day.
The Four Ballades offer more recorded versions to choose from than does the Scherzo, and while Le Van’s performances are beautifully done—caressed by an obvious love of the music and the Romantic poetry that inspired it—I can’t say that his readings surpass those by Nicholas Angelich, one of my favorite Brahms pianists, on Virgin. Still, Le Van is quite wonderful in what is some of Brahms’s most lyrical writing, and his knockout performance of the Second Sonata makes this a must-have disc for all fans of Brahms’s piano music.
Moving on to the Raff violin and piano album on Tudor, I freely admit to not having heard the above-cited CPO CDs featuring violinist Ingolf Turban, and to having had no prior knowledge of these pieces. So, naturally, my inquisitive mind wanted to know, “What in the heck is a sonatille ?” Was it some sort of fanciful term coined by Raff to describe a diminutive sonata? And if so, was a sonatille bigger or smaller than a sonatina? Or, was it an entirely different species having no relation to a sonata at all, just as a tomatillo is unrelated to a tomato?
The answer, dear reader, is that Raff originally composed these 10 movements in 1861 for piano solo, publishing them as three separate mini-sonatas in A Minor, G Minor, and C Major, containing three, four, and three movements, respectively. It wasn’t until 19 years later, in 1880, that he disjoined them into individual numbers arranged for violin and piano, and published them as the Sonatillen , op. 99.
At first I was a bit hesitant to categorize these pieces as salon music, though some of the movements, like the Cavatina (No. 3), would substitute in a pinch for a sugar fix if you were hypoglycemic. Other movements, however—mainly the fast-paced ones—are quite virtuosic and technically tricky sounding for both violin and piano. But then I realized that my hesitation at calling these pieces salon music was based on the unfounded notion that there’s something second-rate and bourgeois about the genre. Nothing could be further from the truth, when you consider that great composer/performers, such as Chopin, Paganini, and Liszt dazzled European salon audiences with highly virtuosic works.
So yes, Raff’s Sonatillen are salon pieces in the best sense of the term, and even more so are the Six Morceaux , op. 85, whose official title is Six Morceaux de Salon . Today, of course, Joachim Raff is not held in the same high esteem he enjoyed in his own day. He was very prolific, some would say too prolific, producing over 200 works with opus numbers, and another 50-plus without opus numbers, in just about every musical genre imaginable. Yet, his music often falls short of genuine inspiration and originality, and his importance in the historical scheme of things rapidly declined after his death. By the 20th century, Walter William Cobbett (1847–1937), an admirer of Raff, could write of the composer in his Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music , “He composed at rare intervals music which alternates between extreme brilliance and sentimental tenderness, but he also poured out incessantly masses of pot-boilers with which, unfortunately, his name is only too often associated.”
Violinist Michaela Paetsch Neftel is a native of Colorado Springs. After early home training by her parents, she studied under Szymon Goldberg at Yale University and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She made her debut as a soloist at the age of 11, playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. A Wikipedia entry claims that Neftel is the first female violinist to record Paganini’s 24 Caprices. That appears to be true. Her recording, originally released on Teldec, was made in 1987, a year before Midori made her recording for Sony. I haven’t heard Neftel’s Paganini, but based on this 2003 Tudor recording of works by Raff, I’d have to say that she certainly possesses the technical wherewithal to play anything she likes; for as indicated above, these Raff pieces are quite virtuosic sounding, and not just for the violin. There’s quite a bit of fancy finger-work for the pianist as well, which Eric Le Van tosses off with stylish aplomb.
No claim is made that the pieces on this disc constitute great music, but taking them for what they are, they make for over an hour’s worth of pleasurable and entertaining listening. Or, to quote from Eric Le Van’s self-authored album note, “It becomes possible to set aside everything that Raff was not, and simply appreciate him on his own terms.” Amen to that, and recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Catalog Number: T7109
Composer: Joachim Raff
Performer: Eric Le Van, Michaela Paetsch Neftel