Pace the otherwise highly informative Joachim Raff website, volume 3 was not after all the final disc in British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen's traversal of this still undervalued composer's music: lucky listeners now have a fourth recital to savour.
Raff wrote a copious amount of piano music, so this remains a long way off being a 'complete works' series. Whether or not it is really the last this time, this latest disc juxtaposes a substantial work from Raff's youth, the 12 Etude-Romances, and a trio of shorter pieces from his maturity. With Raff, however, it makes little difference where on his timeline the pianist or listener alights – the music is uniformly engaging, brilliant, lyrical. Indicatively, the composer hasRead more afforded the shorter works opus numbers too – salon pieces they may be in a sense, but very well written ones brimming with musical adventure and virtuosic demand.
The much longer Douze Romances is rightly the centrepiece of Tra Nguyen's recital. Divided into two albums and recalling both Chopin and Schumann, it is, in annotator Mark Thomas's words, “clear to see why Mendelssohn was so impressed by these products of a 21-year-old who had never had, and never was to have, any formal musical training.”
Nguyen has already shown herself a worthy champion of this oeuvre. Volume 1, her debut solo recording, made an auspicious start, and by now, more than two years on in a career in which Raff has often been the focal point of her recitals, she understands this music like no other. With the substantial technical requirements easily met, she is able to concentrate on creating an expressive Shangri-la for the listener, drawing nurturing warmth, half-forgotten memories, romance and a kaleidoscope of hues and fragrances from Raff's enchanting scores.
Both La Cicerenella and Douze Romances have been recorded rather low – the master volume could have been easily doubled without any danger of distortion. Nevertheless, audio quality is very good, as the listener has come to expect from Grand Piano – a little on the dry side at worst.
Thomas's trilingual booklet notes are, as in previous volumes, extremely readable and informative. The cover art is great news for fans of Norwegian artist Gro Thorsen – another one to add to this effectively free collection of prints. Those less enthusiastic of his brand of gloomy urban snapshot are unlikely to experience a Damascene conversion from this particular issue. By now, however, there should be no waverers when it comes to either Raff or Nguyen.