Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Raff String Quartet Collection Traces Composer's Development

Over the course of this 2-CD set, the Mannheimer String Quartet trace the unusual development of Joachim Raff as a chamber music composer. Raff's eight string quartets can be easily grouped into three phases of his career; Nos. 1 & 2 came early in his career, Nos. 3 & 4 are from his middle period, and the last three are works of a mature composer.

The first quartet on this release is the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 90 in A major, published in 1857. Raff was part of Franz Liszt's circle, and I could hear some decidedly Lisztian harmonic motion throughout this richly scored quartet.

It would be ten years before Raff published another string quartet, when he presented two in rapid succession. The String Quartet No. 3, Op. 136 in e minor is cast more along the lines of a classical era quartet, with less reliance on chromatic motion, and more on motivic development.

Raff opens the String Quartet No. 4, Op. 137 in A minor abruptly, jumping right into the main theme without an introduction. Like the third, this quartet seems to owe more to Beethoven than Liszt. There's a sense of urgency that runs through this quartet, though, that I found compelling.

String Quartet No. 8, op. 192, No. 3 in C major is part of a set of three quartets published n 1876, and is the last of Raff's quartets. The Op. 192 set is somewhat unusual; two of the quartets are characterized as suites.

Quartet No. 8 is subtitled "Suite in Canonform." While the form may be looking back to the baroque, the music certainly isn't. In a way, it reminded me of Reger, who cast new music in old forms. Raff creates a quartet that's full of imaginative counterpoint, taking full advantage of the suite form. Thus,
each movement is only as long as it needs to be, giving them a lightness that would be missing in a more traditional four-movement quartet.

Mannheimer String Quartet deliver strong performances of these works. Their ensemble blend is lush and evocative when it needs to be, and transparent for the contrapuntal sections. Their expressive playing brings out the genuine emotion underlying these works, and the way they carefully shape their ensemble sound helps direct the ear to the important details of the scores.

Joachim Raff: String Quartets 2, 3, 4, and 8
Mannheimer String Quartet
2 CD Set
CPO 777 004-2

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