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CD Review

Joachim Raff

Music for Violin & Piano

  • 10 Sonatillen, Op. 99
  • 6 Morceaux de Salon, Op. 85
Michaela Paetsch Neftel, violin
Eric Le Van, piano
Tudor 7109 67:45 Recorded 2001
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Sonatillen Comparison: Turban/Nemtsov/CPO (nos. 4-7)

The first couple of times I listened to this disc, I could hardly tolerate the oozing sentimentality of the music and the "vibrato mine-field" created by Michaela Paetsch Neftel. Electing my usual regimen when things aren't going well, I set the disc aside for a few days. During the interim, I decided to take two courses of action. First, I needed to connect with my sentimental side, and yes, I do have one. Once that was accomplished, I felt a need to hear various levels of vibrato. As it happens, pianist Eric Le Van had sent me the scores to Raff's Sonatillen and Morceaux. So I hooked up with a local violinist and asked him to play some of the music with strong vibrato, low to moderate vibrato, and zero vibrato. As I expected by this point, the greater the vibrato, the more the music came alive and conveyed its essence.

With the above out of the way and many additional hearings under my belt, I can confidently declare that this Tudor disc is a delight to listen to with superb music played exceptionally well. Joachim Raff's (1822-1882) fountain of melodies is quite impressive, and each of the 16 pieces has its own distinct personality. Generally, a fast and exciting piece is followed by a slower and reflective piece, guaranteeing that interest never sags. Raff is often given the "second-rate" designation, but you wouldn't know it from the irresistible music on this disc. The length of each piece ranges from 2 to 7 minutes, and Raff never becomes overly repetitive. Best of all, the music and performances easily take the listener back to Raff's time where friends gather on the veranda for an evening of intimacy, rustic charm, heart-felt enjoyment, and a few surprises.

Here's a short run-down of the music:

Sonatillen 1 (Allegro agitato) – Restless and angst-ridden, this is the most serious music on the program. It isn't quite "The Rage of Raff", but the piece grabs the throat right from its start with the piano solo introducing a dark and dangerous world.

Sonatillen 2 (Larghetto) – The first of several works on the program where the violin plays in a cantabile style, evoking the best of salon-type music. The primary theme is flat-out gorgeous and comforting, although an animated veneer is occasionally injected for contrast.

Sonatillen 3 (Tarantella. Presto possibile) – Wild Music! The local townsfolk are out of control, their sense of balance and morality now overwhelmed by an inexhaustible supply of lust. They dance as heathens in the forest's darkness, ushering in a night of obscene revelry. As you might guess, I love this piece. From a visceral perspective, it not only pushes the envelope, it screams its way through. If I hadn't heard this Tarantella, I never would have known that Raff had these extreme feelings within him. Of course, Neftel and Le Van are major contributors as they play the music to the hilt with brutal attacks that would impress Attila the Hun.

Sonatillen 4 (Allegro) – Although the primary theme is one of the utmost grace, this work is punctuated by tense phrasing and rapid-fire passages for the piano that Le Van clearly relishes playing.

Sonatillen 5 (Scherzo. Presto) – Exuberant and thoroughly carefree music with an infectious rhythmic swagger. The teamwork between Neftel and Le Van is a pleasure to experience.

Sonatillen 6 (Larghetto quasi Andante) – An exquisite bitter/sweet theme is played three times. Although this might seem repetitive, especially since the key is always in E Flat Major, Raff varies the piano part each time to allow for a different flavor to emerge. Also, a very short and powerful volley of chords by the piano, after the 1st reiteration of the theme, enhances the inherent contrast of the piece. Raff's way with this music is a splendid example of how to employ repetition to create diversity without using the variations form.

Sonatillen 7 (Vivace) – In ABA form, the first theme is highly energetic, sharp and playful, analogous to a country hoe-down. The lyrical second theme brings forth a singing legato from the violin that contrasts wonderfully with its sharp and clipped phrasing in the first section.

Sonatillen 8 (Thema con Variazioni. Adagio non troppo) – Introduced by the piano, the basic theme is relaxing and confident. In the five variations that follow, Raff changes tempo, rhythmic patterns, and the dominant instrument to insure sufficient diversity. I must admit that this piece is my least favorite on the disc; although the theme is a beautiful one, it has lost some appeal on repeated listenings.

Sonatillen 9 (Scherzo. Presto) – One of the most enjoyable works on the program. The first section scampers about in a happy fashion but darkens suddenly in the key of D minor. Then the middle section offers a prime example of cantabile style from the violin, and Neftel's singing tone is intoxicating.

Sonatillen 10 (Adagio – Vivacissimo) – A highly conversational and playful piece. Le Van begins the proceedings with a slow and bleak trudge through emotional wallowing. Then Neftel quickly beckons and teases Le Van, hoping that he will join her for some fun and hi-jinks. But Le Van once again expresses his disappointments, so Neftel beckons him again but in a more visceral manner. That does the trick, and they dash off together to indulge their elementary pleasures. Just goes to prove that a good woman is priceless, and the music is also. Every time I listen to the piece, I get a natural high.

Morceaux 1 (Marcia. Allegro) – Raff invests this piece with a playful and confident swagger. The performers' spirits are so elevated and assertive that I find myself immersed in another natural high. I have to say that Neftel and Le Van are doing a great job: perfect union, a wealth of detail and expression, tremendous attacks, fantastic elasticity, and superb rhythmic lift. Raff couldn't ask for better champions of his music.

Morceaux 2 (Pastorale. Andantino) – Among quite a few works on the program that I adore, this Pastorale is my favorite. The first section contains gorgeous cantabile playing from the violin set in a mysterious background, and the second section finds Le Van hypnotizing us with notes of sparkling pearls gliding effortlessly through space.

Morceaux 3 (Cavatina. Larghetto, quasi Andantino) – This is what I call a "gusher", music oozing with sentimentality and that old heart-on-the-sleeve feeling. In my more austere moments, I can find this sort of music embarrassing. But as I mentioned earlier in the review, I do have a sentimental side and ended up handling the piece very well. And I have to admit that the music is flat-out lovely and a showcase for Neftel's fabulous characterization of the glissando requirements. When I was reviewing the Anne-Sophie Mutter set of Mozart's Violin Concertos, I was extremely impressed with her command of the instrument. Neftel is as good as Mutter, probably better.

Morceaux 4 (Scherzino. Allegro) – Neftel's superior artistry and technique is again on display in the Scherzino. What strikes me this time around is how naturally she shifts from darting and sharp phrases in the first section to legato-driven musical lines with a beautiful singing tone in the second section.

Morceaux 5 (Canzona. Andante non troppo lento) – This is Raff's homage to the lullaby, and it's a fine one, a graceful cantilena (i.e. sustained musical line).

Morceaux 6 (Tarantella. Presto) – Neftel and Le Van close out their program with this zippy Tarantella of high spirits blended with a little bit of the devil from Neftel's fingers.

Concerning matters of alternative performances, the fine CPO label has three volumes of Raff's music for violin and piano. I have Volume 3 which has four of the Sonatillen. Those performances are more than acceptable, but they make Raff sound rather ordinary when compared to Neftel and Le Van who work wonders in bringing out the gorgeous musical themes of the slower pieces and the drama/excitement of the faster ones. There really is no contest here as Turban's legato is wiry with shortened note values, while Nemtsov just seems to play along to complete the mission. Further, the Tudor sound has a lovely richness absent in the CPO recording; the Sonatillen and Morceaux thrive on a rich environment.

I should relate a few details about the background of our performers. Michaela Paetsch Neftel grew up in Colorado Springs and received her initial musical training from her parents. She then studied under Szymon Goldberg at Yale University and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her debut as a soloist was at the age of 11, playing the famous Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor. Further engagements have included Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer Hall, the Washington Library of Congress, and numerous locations in Europe and Asia. On record, Neftel has a disc of the Paganini Caprices on Teldec and a recent recording for Tudor of Raff's Violin Concertos. She is clearly an up and coming star, and I expect that a wonderful career awaits her.

Eric Le Van first came to my attention when the President of Music & Arts Programs of America sent me a disc to review of Le Van playing the Scriabin Mazurkas. The interpretations were exceptional, leading me to occasional correspondence with Mr. Le Van. Born in Los Angeles, his debut was at age sixteen playing the Brahms Sonatas. After studying at the University of Southern California, Le Van took the masterclass of Rudolf Buchbinder in Basel, Switzerland. In recent years, he has performed throughout the United States and Europe and is currently the Artistic Director of the International Franz Liszt Festival in France.

Don's Conclusions: This is one of the most enjoyable recordings I have listened to in the past few years. Although Raff is not exactly within my comfort zone, Neftel and Le Van have totally altered my assessment of the composer. It all goes to prove that great music does not play itself; it needs exceptional performers to highlight its architecture and the compelling nature of its musical lines and progression. Neftel and Le Van have done this with a level of artistry and technique that is stunning. Further, if I can be converted to loving highly sentimental music, anyone can. So, do yourself a favor and track down this disc – you won't be sorry. I give the recording a 10/10; the Satz Rating Scale shows the disc to be off the charts.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz