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Raff: Piano Quartets / Ensemble Il Trittico

Release Date: 07/26/2011 
Label:  Divox   Catalog #: 20905   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Joachim Raff
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Il Trittico
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RAFF Piano Quartets , op. 202: in G; in c Ens Il Trittico; David Greenlees (va) DIVOX 20905 (SACD: 78:09)

Joachim Raff’s output, as can be seen from the opus number of these two piano quartets, is substantial, all the more surprising given that he was largely self-taught. He was of German parentage but born in Switzerland as a result of his father having fled Württemberg to avoid military conscription. Raff Read more (1822–82) fits into the Mendelssohn-Schumann orbit. His dates and his close associations with the Schumanns as well as with Hans von Bülow would also suggest a Brahms link, but there doesn’t seem to have been one. Raff, in fact, is most closely allied with Liszt, having worked with the latter as his assistant in Weimar from 1850 to 1853. And in a case of apprentice turned master, it was Raff who tutored Liszt in the art of orchestration, making a significant contribution to the orchestrating of Liszt’s symphonic tone poems, especially Tasso , which some believe to be almost entirely Raff’s handiwork.

As a composer of his own works, Raff was prolific, producing 11 symphonies, numerous concertos, volumes of orchestral and chamber works, and several operas. His music was well regarded in its time and his special flair for tone-painting—almost all of his symphonies bear programmatic titles—influenced a number of other composers and works. Raff’s Seventh Symphony, titled “In the Alps,” may well have been the inspiration for Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony . Though Raff is today reasonably well represented on record, his music largely fell out of favor not long after his death, and it’s not likely that these two piano quartets, beautifully presented as they are here, are going to initiate a major revival.

The two works, dating from around 1876, are late Raff. The piano quartet being the neglected child after the string quartet and piano trio, Raff’s contributions to the medium are welcome. The style of writing is reminiscent but not directly imitative of Schumann. It’s clearly later than that, yet if Raff was even passingly familiar with any of Brahms’s works—and I don’t see how he couldn’t have been—his piano quartets show no evidence of it. I was quite surprised in fact to hear a sequential progression in the first movement of the G-Major Quartet that sounded like it came straight out of Tchaikovsky’s A-Minor Piano Trio, which, of course, is impossible since Tchaikovsky’s piece wouldn’t be written for another half-dozen years. But it was then that I read Avrohom Leichting’s informative album notes in which he asserts that influence ran in the other direction, that Tchaikovsky borrowed from Raff, and that “the Russian flavor of these phrases is consistent with other passages in Raff’s work, reflecting his fundamental eclecticism.”

If you know Raff from his symphonies, which have enjoyed at least one complete cycle on Tudor with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and two incomplete cycles on Marco Polo/Naxos and cpo, you’ll find yourself on familiar ground with these piano quartets. Raff’s musical style does not seem to have undergone much change over the course of his career. His works evidence the hand of a skillful and consistent craftsman and, every so often, a spark of inspiration that results in a memorably turned phrase or a heartfelt melody. The two piano quartets—the only two Raff wrote that I know of—are beautiful examples of a post-Mendelssohn, post-Schumann Romanticism in a genre of composition that doesn’t seem to have found a lot of favor among 19th-century composers.

This 2009 recording by Switzerland-based Ensemble Il Trittico, joined by violist David Greenlees, appears to be the only one currently listed for Raff’s piano quartets. Since we’re unlikely to see another one soon, I can happily report that performances given here and Divox’s SACD recording are exemplary. Recommended to all chamber music fanciers.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartets (2) for Piano and Strings, Op. 202 by Joachim Raff
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Il Trittico
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1876 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Essential Listening! February 18, 2013 By Mark N. (Oswego, IL) See All My Reviews "Raff composed two piano quintets late in life. Both were written in 1876 and denoted as Op. 202 No.1 and Op.202 No.2. One could say that these works represent the culmination of his chamber music experience and they are indeed an excellent example of the genre and of late romantic music in particular. I will go so far as to say that they are fully the equal of Brahms’s piano quartets and in some ways even surpass them. The best I can tell, this is the only available recording of them. What took so long? Opus 202/1 (G major) is in four movements with a duration of 38:37 in this performance. From the opening of the first movement Allegro, the listener is in for a treat. An explosion of sound launches us into the main thematic material with lots of inventive piano writing and harmonies. The elan is carried through the entire movement. Then, the allegro molto second movement takes off with some fancy piano writing into a scherzo-like bustle that eventually calms to a brief period of stasis only to erupt again for the final measures. Things take a more serious turn in the succeeding andante quasi adagio with a transition to minor key and plaintive melody from the first violin. The dynamic ebb and flow of the ensemble is tantalizing while the various strings take their hand at the melodic material. The cello theme accompanied by block chords on the piano and pizzicato strings is especially nice. The allegro finale begins back in G major with what sounds like a hunting call – piano declaration with strings answering. The exposition begins apace with a lively theme that is developed and shared between piano and strings. This culminates in a convincing coda. The performance of the Ensemble Il Trittico with violist David Greenless is simply amazing. Opus 202/2 (C minor) is also in four movements with a duration of 39:22. And, as one might expect for two works conceived in such close proximity of time, they are in many ways clones. This is not to say that there is any redundancy of material but rather that both quartets share the same high level of inspiration. The minor key casts a darker shadow over the beginning allegro movement. However, it is not long before Raff’s playfulness inserts itself in the thematic material only to be slapped down by the minor key theme. The movement ends in a hectic rush with two slashing final chords. The second movement is also marked allegro and also launches in the minor key as if the composer wasn’t quite done with the ideas in the first movement. There are strong reminders of Brahms piano quintet here with the rustling low notes in the piano. The movement ends with a playful, mezzo-piano interplay between piano and strings. The ensuing larghetto is an autumnal song in A-flat major. The theme is first introduced by the piano and them taken up by the cello. Lovely. The lyrical theme is developed over the course of its 10+ minutes – a serene island in a stormy ocean. The calm of the larghetto is rudely interrupted by the concluding allegro which returns to the minor key. The movement builds to an exciting climax. The performance is once again excellent. The sound is excellent (in stereo). This was recorded in the music hall of La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland where many chamber music recordings have been made in the past on the Philips label (the Beaux Arts Trio’s Brahms piano quartets released on SACD by Pentatone were done here). The recording engineer is Stephan Schellmann. The ensemble is captured in a very realistic balance with wide dynamic range. Instrument tonality is terrific and the low end foundation of the piano and cello are properly accounted for. The balance of direct and hall sound is also nigh on perfect. What a great and enjoyable surprise this SACD was! This is among the very best SACD’s from 2011. High praise to all involved – Ensemble Il Trittico, David Greenless and the Divox recording team. Don’t miss it." Report Abuse
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