Seize the Seasons!
Robert Thomas | Los Angeles, CA | 06/13/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Besides Bruckner, the 11 symphonies of Joachim Raff are perhaps the greatest complete symphonic cycle composed in the 19th century (Mahler was of course writing into the early 20th).
Although the 4 symphonies featured here are masterworks, they are not recommended as a good starting point for those wishing to discover this particular composer.
Yes, they represent the Raff at his most original, free at last from the great influence of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and because of this one might be tempted to skip his earlier efforts and go straight for the center of the oreo cookie.
I personally feel that this is a mistake because upon hearing these symphonies, one is less likely to become enamored with the work of this musical giant. The reason being that these are subtle, descriptive pieces, lacking the great highs and lows of symphonies 1, 3 and 5, for example.
But, once you have listened to the earlier symphonies and traced the development of this composer you will reap great rewards with the 'Seasons'.
These descriptive, programmatic symphonies clearly illustrate why it was that Raff had a major influence on Richard Strauss, as well foreshadowing many of the early 20th century film music techniques.
Each symphony is a gem, worthy of repeated listening, but it is number 11 that commands center stage here. There are moments of true greatness in each of the 4 movements, most notably in movement 1 and a particularly exquisite, stunning return of the theme in the horns (under high strings with wood wind figures) just after the midpoint of movement 2.
One note regarding the 11th symphony (In Winter). This work was left unfinished at the time of Raffs death, and finished by his friend Ermanndsdorfer. It is unclear how much was actually left unfinished by Raff, but I suspect that the answer to this question is "Very Little". Raff's composing method was to sketch a movement in it's entirety in one sitting. He believed that by returning to a sketch, a movement would lose it's natural flow (Raff was a VERY fast composer, by the way). I suspect that Erdmannsdorfer most likely did nothing more than fill in some missing orchestration, unless of course, he was a towering genuis who understood Raff's music as well as the composer himself.
To sum up, a first rate performance, (although I see room for improvement), good sound quality, and informative liner notes earn this 2 CD collection very high marks.
A must-have for all you Raffians out there.
I had a great time with this one.
First Recording of the Complete 'Seasons' Tetralogy by Raff
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 07/04/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I'm not the greatest fan of Raff's music, much as I admire some of it. His style is a little hard to characterize and even in his lifetime he was chastised for being a bit of a magpie, collecting bits and pieces of others' styles, or at least imitating them. Still, during his lifetime he was one of the most renowned composers, spoken of in the same breath as Brahms and Wagner. Further, he was no mere epigone, as some have suggested; rather, he had his own mind and went his own way musically. He even risked getting exiled from Weimar by Liszt and his circle (and this while he was living amongst them) by making some rather harsh criticisms of Wagner's 'Ring' in a famous essay, 'The Wagner Question.' He spent the next few years living in poverty in Wiesbaden before he was chosen to become the director of the newly founded Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfort. These four symphonies were written while he was in Wiesbaden and Frankfort and they were premièred in the former city. They are presented here in the following order, No. 8 'Spring,' No. 10 'Autumn,' No. 9 'Summer and No. 11 'Winter.' Presumably this slightly awkward arrangement has to do with fitting all four symphonies onto two CDs. 'Winter' was not completed and was put away in a drawerby Raff. It was later completed by Ermannsdörfer and it is not clear how much of the symphony represents Raff's own work. These performances were recorded in 1992-1994, not long before the Philharmonica Hungarica, founded after the 1956 Hungarian uprising by emigré Hungarian musicians and based for almost forty years in Germany, disbanded for financial reasons. They are expertly conducted by Werner Andreas Albert. The sound is variable. In the 8th symphony the sound is somewhat congested with the strings rather too much to the fore. The rest of the symphonies benefit from somewhat better sound, and particularly so in the case of the 9th, which is also the best performance here. Particularly impressive in the 9th are the second and third movements. The fairy music in II ('Die Jagd der Elfen' ['The Elves' Hunt']) is like late-19th century Mendelssohn. III, 'Eclogue,' has gentle winds and strings playing delicate and memorable pastoral melodies. It may be my favorite of all sixteen movements here. The finale is gentle and tightly constructed allegro with some stirring four-horn passages. Symphony No. 10 'Zur Herbstzeit' ('In Autumn') is notable also for its second and third movements. II is a spooky evocation of ghouls and goblins (Hallowe'en, get it?). III, 'Elegie,' is a lovely adagio. No. 11, the one not completed by Raff, has its strongest movement in I, subtitled 'Der erste Schnee,' ('The First Snow'), with its striking syncopations and an evocation of a bleak but exciting winter storm. II has no subtitle (the only untitled movement in this set of sixteen movements); it has lively antiphonal effects back and forth between the winds and pizzicato strings; there are some nice harmonic twists as well. (The Philharmonic Hungarica plays very well here.) The good news is that this is being issued a mid-price, essentially two CDs for the price of one. The bad news is that the performances (and sound) are somewhat variable. But there is plenty of good ripe echt-Romantic lusciosity here and if you're one of those who eats that up (and you know who you are!), this may indeed be for you. TT: CD1 = 76:48; CD2 = 75:35Scott Morrison"
Zur Herbstzeit, a highly nuanced work
John D. Pilkey | Santa Clarita, CA USA | 12/27/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This work offers some unusual textures for a romantic symphony of the 19th century. The first movement is carried forward from start to finsish by an undulating figure both slow in tempo and fairly low in dynamic. Raff seems to be defying the convention of the declamatory first movement. Loud passages frequently occur but are always brief and structurally transitional. The movement becomes a touchstone of Germanic discipline and tact by showing off the composer's capacity to keep his full resources in reserve. The second, scherzo movement also achieves a subtle effect. It begins and ends with a faint figure by the tympany, typical of Raff's commitment to a rhythmic beat but deliberately understated. Low-pitched woodwinds present the rhythmic theme also at low dynamic at first. This melody, still in minor key, is handed off to so many groups of instruments that it sounds rather like theme and variations without becoming that. The third, slow movement turns to a lyrical, consolatory major key theme often played by an oboe. Toward the close of the movement, the theme turns minor and decidedly elegiac. The finale is conventionally bright and celebrative in a major key for the most part. It echoes Mendelssohn's style. The minor key restatement of its main theme is welcome when it comes. These effects are intended to represent the texture of autumn in the "Four Seasons" context of this outstanding CD."