Raff: Symphony No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Four Shakespeare Preludes. Neeme Jarvi, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Chandos CHSA 5117.

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:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa