Some of Raff's ever-engaging Symphonies – there are eleven of them, plus a Symphonietta for winds – have patches where it is his unerring technical competence that carries the day rather than freshness of invention and the conviction of the musical argument. And some of them, by contrast, are as invigorating as spring breezes and contain passages of undeniable power. The Second Symphony, Op. 140, in C Major (1869) belongs very clearly to the second category – it's a thoroughly attractive work, brimful of catchy tunes, inspired orchestral writing, buoyant rhythms. It's also very much an outdoor work, evoking a rather purposeful pastoralism and inhabiting a soundworld close to Mendelssohn and Schumann (who is directly evoked in some of the horn-writing). But it's also representative of German Romantism as a whole – of which, after all, Raff was one of the more important composers…
Roméo and Juliet and Macbeth are two of Raff's four Shakespeare-inspired overtures, all dating from 1879. Roméo and Juliet is not quite Raff-on-autopilot, technically secure but averagely imagined, for it has moments that are rather better than that. And Macbeth is a real find. It's a big-boned cracker of a piece, eleven-and-a-half minutes long, with music of genuine distinction, highly coloured (not least with some skirtling piccolo writing and dramatic trumpet flourishes), powerfully worked-out (including what Keith Anderson's notes call "some curiously eerie passages of chromaticism, contrapuntally treated") and perfectly judged for effect and impact. This work ought to be one of the staples of the concert repertoire, for it offers music of similar quality to other overtures or orchestral pieces that are much better known – like, say, Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor or Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagñol, to take two very different examples at random.
Urs Schneider obtains fine playing from the Slovak State Philharmonic (some of Marco Polo's East-European orchestras leave quite a bit to be desired; you need have no such worries here), and gives the music plenty of zip and bubble, and power too, when it's needed.
My recommendation to anyone wanting to sample one of Raff's Symphonies from the Marco Polo cycle used to be #4 (coupled with #11 on 8.223529). Now this irresistible disc shoots to the top of the list. Recommended with much enthusiasm.
Copyright © 1996/1998, Martin Anderson