This CD is something of a first: Raff shares billing with seven other composers and his name is by far the best known amongst them! It is also unusual because the two Raff pieces in his op.70 set are the only ones on the disc purely for piano, all the rest are for flute and piano.
The Two Salon Paraphrases after Verdi date from 1857, a time when Raff’s star was at last on the rise, albeit slowly. He had just emerged from the shadow of his mentor Liszt, had established himself in Wiesbaden and was starting to gain a name for himself as a serious composer of large scale works; in the same year he completed his Second String Quartet and La fée d’amour, a substantial piece for piano and orchestra.
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.