Raff: Violin Concertos No 1 & 2 / Neftel, Stadlmair, Et Al

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RAFF Violin Concertos: No. 1, op. 161 (ed. Wilhelmj); No. 2, op. 206. Cavatina, op. 85/3 (orch. Singer). Ungrischer (à la Hongroise), op. 203/5 • Michaela Paetsch Neftel (vn); Hans Stadlmair, cond; Bamberg SO • TUDOR 7086 (70:05)

Swiss-born Joseph Joachim Raff (1822 82) occupies an ambiguous position in music history. He was a hugely prolific composer of symphonies (12), quartets (7), songs, operas, sonatas, suites, and concertos, but even so his 216 opus numbers are swollen with loads of salon pieces. He had the reputation of being difficult, but managed to be personally and professionally respected by Liszt as well as Clara Schumann, Brahms, as well as Tchaikovsky. Somehow he combined the influences of Mendelssohn and Wagner. In his time he was regarded as a great composer, but upon his death was reduced to being the author of the Cavatina and The Mill, a string quartet excerpt. His reputation revived a bit in our time, when some conductors became interested in a few of the symphonies. Now we have this recording of two large-scale, technically very demanding violin concertos.

Inventive without being actually tuneful, both are marked by robust, even brassy orchestration, and solo parts then get right to business after brief orchestral introductions. And, alas, both soon clog really fine melodic ideas with unyielding and bombastic technical violin passagework, some of a difficulty to suggest that Raff looked to Spohr, Ernst, and Paganini for ideas about violin-writing. The Concerto No. 1 in B Minor of 1870-71 has a second movement that at first sounds truly inspired. It opens with hushed, muted strings, rich and colorful chords, and a soaring violin heard over a wind choir. But alas, Raff soon dissipates this sumptuous effect with tiresome violinistic embroidery. The third movement opens with a trumpet blare, lapsing into a mock-serious march that the violin mocks even more by it playing straight against a totally effete pizzicato accompaniment. An odd, novel passage for drum leads into a short cadenza, followed by a grand finale of octaves, double-stops, fast scales, and other such virtuoso fireworks. An inconsistent but entertaining work, and an impressive showcase for the American-born soloist.

The Concerto No. 2 in A Minor of 1877 has a pretentious program—the struggle of the soul— but the listener mostly hears the calisthenics of the violinist. Again, Michaela Paetsch Neftel has truly mastered this bristling solo part to the point of audible comfort, with nothing cautious or tentative about her approach. The second movement, meant to convey consolation, warmth, hope, and peace, is tender, wistful, and really lovable, and it is prettier than that of Concerto No. 1. The third movement's program, joy and pleasure, ends up sounding mostly just frothy, but with contrasting passages of great emotional warmth and impact (Raff could support a theme with affecting harmonies worthy of the best of Bruch or Saint-Saëns), but again a tendency for the solo part to simply be overloaded with difficulties rather than just sing. In the cadenza there is a high-flying reminder of Paganini's Concerto No. 1. On balance, a successful display work but not music of the first rank. The disc is filled out with nicely turned performances of the Cavatina of 1859 and Raff's own orchestration of a charming piece from his Volker Suite.

Both concertos have their exasperating moments, and I'll be tempted to just skip the first movements in future hearings; but they hang together structurally, melodically, and as show-off pieces, with many excellent opportunities for Paetsch Neftel to shine. She came in ninth in the 1985 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition, not, as the notes say, third, but she certainly sounds like a topflight artist on this release, which provides a welcome revisit to the entire genre of the Romantic violin concerto.

-- David K. Nelson, Fanfare

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2001

  • Catalog Number: T7086

  • UPC: 812973010869

  • Label: Tudor

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Joachim Raff

  • Conductor: Hans Stadlmair

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Michaela Paetsch Neftel