Raff: String Quartet No. 1 in D minor

COMPOSERS: Raff
LABELS: (i) and (ii) Tudor
ALBUM TITLE: Raff
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 in D minor
PERFORMER: (i) Quartetto di Milano, (ii) Ariadne Daskalakis (violin), Roglit Ishay (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: (i) 7079, (ii) 7122 (dist. Coda)
In one of several tirades against Brahms ‘the giftless bastard,’ Tchaikovsky ranted to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in a letter of October 1880: ‘Played Brahms.

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It irritates me that this self-conscious mediocrity should be recognised as a “genius”. In comparison with him, Raff is a giant…’ The great Russian may have been slightly over-stating the case, but it is an indication of Raff’s reputation at the time that he was considered worth even mentioning in this context.

Anyone suspecting Tchaikovsky of cruel hyperbole will, I suspect, be silenced by the imposing mastery of Raff’s string quartet writing. Imagine Mendelssohn’s easygoing fluency grafted onto to the contrapuntal machinations of Brahms’s Op. 54 Quartets, with a touch of Franckian chromaticism thrown in for good measure, and you’ll have a rough idea what to expect of Raff’s Op. 77 Quartet. It’s a glorious work that puts Bruch’s expert contributions to the genre and several of Dvo?ák’s quartets quite in the shade. The Seventh Quartet is cast in six movements, and although it has no connection with Schubert’s song cycle of the same name, its vein of gentle lyricism and moments of surging drama erupting from seemingly innocent material unmistakably recalls the Austrian master. The Milan Quartet plays this music with supreme confidence, insight and élan, although the recording could ideally have befitted from a shade more ambience.

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The violin sonatas also embrace music of surpassing skill, even if shades of the Cavatina are occasionally felt. The invariable 19th-century imbalance between the difficulty of the violin (eminently playable) and piano (at times rigorously demanding) parts is felt throughout, particularly in the unashamedly Lisztian ‘Chromatic’ Sonata, although Daskalakis and Ishay warm to their task with alacrity and flair, taking potential imbalances in their stride. Julian Haylock