He remained poor, however, and so also carried on writing piano arrangements for the salon of popular operas because these were guaranteed to bring in some money. Although his large body of work in this genre undoubtedly later harmed his hard-won reputation as symphonist of stature, a closer look at these pieces shows that they were all written with consumate skill and craftsmanship. They exhibit the same imagination, idiomatic pianism, artistic flair and attention to detail which he brought to his major works. The paraphrases on Il Trovatore
and La Traviata
in op.70 are no exception.
The CD’s programme has been carefully planned, with these piano-only pieces coming in the middle of it, preceded by four Italian opera paraphrases and followed by three on French operas. The Raff pair have rather darker timbres than the flute and piano works which surround them. Catherine Sarasin begins Trovatore with an appropriately doom laden, dramatic opening, followed by a hesitant, teasing introduction of Raff’s take on Verdi’s familiar tunes. She brushes off the difficulty of Raff’s never-easy writing with aplomb, pacing the short piece well to subtly build up the tempo and the tension. Although only lasting a little under five minutes, the work is a satisfying artistic whole, no mere potpourri of stitched together tunes, and Sarasin’s performance helps give it that cohesion.
Traviata follows a similar arc. Gloomily foreboding at the beginning, it stutteringly launches into the main material which Raff decorates more than in its companion piece. Verdi’s yearning phrases are well articulated by Sarasin who clearly understands that this is a tragedy after all. She brings to the second half of the work a lilting delicacy which nonetheless has an entirely appropriate tinge of sadness, an effect rather spoilt (by Raff, not Sarasin) at the end with a emphatic chordal finish. As with its companion, Traviata’s five minutes are a very satisfying listen under Sarasin’s fingers.
The rest of the CD is equally delightful. The paraphrases on Rigoletto, Traviata, Cenerentola, Faust, La Juive and Carmen are by the, to me at least, completely unknown Popp, Krakamp, Remusat, Leduc, Gariboldi, Demersseman and Borne, all of whom were apparently well known composer-virtuosi in their day. Miriam Terragni is clearly a virtuoso of the first class. There is a delightful lightness to much of her playing and her technique is staggering, witness the apparent effortlessness with which she treats some of the (literally) breathtakingly long phrases in these pieces. Sarasin is a very sensitive accompanist, taking a supporting role for the most part in this music written by flautists to display their own virtuosity, but shining when she is given a few bars to showcase her own considerable talents. Of the music itself, the most effective pieces are the two that bookend the programme: Wilhem Popp’s Rigoletto Fantasie (his op.335!) and François Borne’s Fantaisie brillante sur Carmen. The former for its shameless hijacking of Verdi to create a vehicle demonstrating Popp’s own astounding virtuosity and Borne’s because it remains truer to the spirit of Bizet’s masterpiece than the other works here. That said, Raff’s 10 minutes show him to be a composer on an altogether higher plane than any of them.
The sound is immediate and warm and Robert Matthew-Walker’s insert notes are properly informative, even if he is faintly sniffy about Raff. In sum, a delightful CD and thoroughly recommendable.