Here’s another of those composers who was popular in his own day but whose music people forgot once he passed. The Swiss-German composer, teacher, and pianist Joachim Raff (1822-1882) seems to have been more influential than he was enduring, having a greater impact on future classical composers than on his future public. He wrote quite a lot, too: eleven symphonies, nine concertos, and a slew of other things--operas, suites, overtures, preludes, and chamber works--some of it descriptive, much of it Romantic. Whatever, Maestro Neeme Jarvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande provide a well-rounded overview of the man’s orchestral output, and, who knows, perhaps if enough people hear Raff’s music, the fellow will come back into vogue. There are certainly enough recordings of his work to earn him a top spot again, so at least some conductors still like him.
Raff wrote his Second Symphony in 1866, and it begins with an opening that resembles something by Sibelius, though long before Sibelius, with touches of Wagner and the future Richard Strauss thrown in. I had never heard the work before, so I trust that Jarvi knows what he’s doing. The initial Allegro has a wonderfully rippling gait, warmly melodious and rhythmic. It’s essentially sunny music, energetic at times, with a welcome ebb and flow.
There follows a slow movement of both grandeur and grace, beginning with a hymn-like motif of refined beauty. It proceeds to get more dramatic as it goes along but quickly returns to a pastoral calmness. Jarvi appears to give it full due.
The third movement scherzo is a rather blustery affair, which apparently Jarvi does his best to modulate. By around the two or three-minute mark, it settles into a far more lyrical mood before returning to its tempestuous roots.
In contrast to the preceding movement, the finale starts very slowly and builds up to a lively, almost frenzied middle section, with Jarvi and his players hanging on for dear life. It’s all rather spirited, if somewhat disjointed. While the music has much to offer in bits and pieces, one can see why it didn’t remain in the public’s fancy. Maybe Jarvi’s recording will win it some new friends.
The companion works on the disc are four orchestral preludes Raff wrote in 1879, overtures to Shakespeare plays although not really programmatic. We hear the preludes to The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, each piece lasting from eight to fourteen minutes. Rather than actual tone poems, they are more like little atmospheric pieces describing moods and characters in the plays, sometimes filled with sound and fury but signifying little. Still, Jarvi has a way with them that makes them fun, especially Macbeth, with its Mendelssohnian overtones. I admit I enjoyed these little preludes more than I did the symphony.
Chandos used their new 24-bit/96kHz technology to record the music in multichannel SACD, although as with most such discs, this one is a hybrid. So you can listen in 5.0 multichannel SACD, 2.0 SACD, or 2.0 CD, the latter from a regular CD player. I listened mostly in 2.0 SACD, which provided a pleasantly full and dynamic sound.
Using Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland as their recording venue in 2012, Chandos obtained, as I say, a pleasing if not extraordinary product. The highs seem a bit hard and fizzy on occasion; otherwise, the recording projects a widespread, well-balanced, well-orderer sound, with moderate depth and a smooth overall response. The SACD layer appears to have more impact than the regular CD layer and at times can be quite thrilling.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: