Joachim Raff (1822-1882) is most famous for his programmatic "Leonore" Symphony, his fifth. That symphony was championed by conductor and film composer Bernard Herrmann, and it still maintains a loose grip on the repertoire. Raff wrote eleven symphonies, however, and although no one conductor seems to have recorded all of them, Swiss conductor Urs Schneider has recorded several. This 1990 recording, originally released on the full-priced Marco Polo label, now has been reissued at a budget price on Naxos.
Raff was well acquainted with Franz Liszt and is believed to have scored some of the Hungarian master's tone poems, and also fixed up his orchestrations here and there. Liszt's influence can be felt in Raff's affinity for program music; only three of the eleven symphonies, for example, are abstract. His favorite themes are nature and folklore. Stylistically, he can be compared to Schumann and Mendelssohn, twelve and thirteen years his senior respectively.
"In Autumn," composed in 1879, has four movements: "Impressions and feelings," "Ghosts' Dance," "Elegie," and "The Hunt." (Raff wrote symphonies inspired by the other three seasons as well.) "In the Forest" also opens with "Impressions and feelings." This movement is followed by "Dreaming," "Dance of the Dryads," and "At Night." The last movement incorporates sections depicting "the still of the night in the forest," "entry and departure of the wild hunt, with Lady Holle and Wotan," and "daybreak." This symphony was completed in 1869.
Schneider conducts a cut version of "In the Forest," an unfortunate practice, but one not unique to this conductor. (Recordings by Davan Wetton on Hyperion and by d'Avalos on AS&V are reportedly note-complete, but these are much more expensive CDs.) As far as I can tell, Schneider's "In Autumn" is given intact. The conductor has a good understanding of Raff's music and for the Romantic idiom in general. The Slovakian Orchestra plays competently, although it would be stretching things to say that it glories in Raff's music. The engineering is sensible and unspectacular.
I can imagine a better presentation of these two scores – and both symphonies are worthy of exploration – but curious listeners will get more than the general idea from Schneider's performances, and the price is right.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle