Overture to Prometheus Unbound/Liszt and Raff
April 26, 2015
Sterling, a Swedish CD company, has just made available an exciting new release of 1st time recordings on CD of Joachim Raff (1822-1882) in a two CD set the first of which is the original Overture to Promethus Unbound, composed by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) but arranged and orchestrated by Raff in 1850, an assignment given to him when he first began to work for Liszt. It was written for a play by Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1844. Liszt had only sketches at the time for the play which was only performed once. In 1855 Liszt re-orchestrated the work and called it a symphony poem. Until the release of this recording from Sterling you likely heard Promethus in a set which included all of his tone poems. It is a few minutes shorter 443 measures compared to 832 for the Raff. The pace is quicker and at times frantic. The liner notes written by Dr. Leichtling give a detailed explanation of the differences in the 32 page booklet. I would encourage the listener to listen to both versions and compare something we normally are not able to do. The difference is striking in each man’s interpretation.
It begins with a striking melody quite bold that you’ll instantly identify as the Promethus theme, one that sounds like the wrath of god (in this case Zeus) with thunder coming down on you. This theme has variations through the overture and is repeated in full again two thirds into the work. A quiet section with lower strings and woodwinds occur and the works builds itself up again with another theme to a frenzy making you think of a storm which subsides into a calming section still continuing with the same theme featured by the strings and woodwinds. There is a fugal section after the andante section. The tempo and loudness begins until the beginning staccato chords begin again followed by the brass taking over as they fanfare with timpani in the background. This brings on a rousing conclusion. I would encourage the listener to compare the two different versions something that we normally aren’t able to do as it is rare for two composers to work on the same piece. Neither is better just different from each other.
INCIDENTAL MUSIC TO THE DRAMA BERNHARD von WEIMAR (1854)
The play, written by Wilhelm Genast who would become Raff’s brother-in-law in 1859, was the reason that Raff took on this project. The work is really two separate sections the overture and the two marches. The play was written about Weimar who was one of the important military commanders in the 30 year war. The opening overture is based on Einn feste Bourg an important Lutheran hymn that perhaps gave Raff a bit of difficulty as he was Catholic. It is very much a religious overture with parts being solemn and other parts being very proud and majestic but both styles being built around the Einn feste Bourg theme.
The second movement is the first of two marches this one being in Allegro vivace. It immediately begins with a very majestic theme that has wonderful brass measures that are an important part of the development of the work. I would classify this as a fun piece to listen to and one that Raff could easily have classified as a festive overture. He relates feeling of happy times. Raff’s theme for the march was reused by Raff 17 years later in his last movement of the piano concerto. How many of you picked up on that?
The third movement, another march is quite the opposite of the first one. It is quite serious, very proud, and courtly in nature. The horns again play a prominent role with assistance from the strings and woodwinds. The work shifts gears and becomes more serious witha funeral like pace until the horns return along with the proud stately manner that it began with. A nice contrast from the previous movement. Keep in mind that this is another premiere work from Raff and needs to be in your collection if you have any interest in his works.
ORCHESTRAL INTERMEZZI FROM THE ORATORIO WORLD’S END JUDGMENT-NEW WORLD, OP. 212
Written at the very end of Raff’s life we now hear a very different sound. Gone are the broad classical romantic sounds which are being replaced with a simpler approach definitely leaning toward the minimalism that would take over. Look at this as a last statement, a hurrah if you will. The work like the von Weimar work is divided into three sections “Worlds End,” “Judgment,” and “New World.”
The first section deals with The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse beginning with “Pestilence” a very simple movement filled with endless repetition from the strings. Dr. Leichtling reminds us that Bernard Herrmann, an ardent admirer of Raff used some of the techniques you hear in his film scores. “The War” section ges away from the minimal approach and offers the listener a mini overture. Beginning with a gallop the horns soon enter and dominate the cue. The track ends with a fanfare of horns. “Famine” returns to the minimalist approach from the strings with the woodwinds offering notes almost random sounding. “Death and Hell” again begins with the strings building up to a rousing crescendo of wind and rain. This reviewer gets the feeling that Raff is holding back. “The Judgment” is a fanfare for brass which slowly fades into the lower bowels of the orchestra then continues the lower notes as a background for bassoon and horns. The “Resurrection” continues with the previous cue building in intensity. It is solemn without hope. The final track “New World”is as you would expect a simple cue with fugal overtones, a lovely way to end the work.
This is a release that any follower of Raff is going to want to have in his collection. The works are solid, good sound, well performed and conducted, and it is something that I’ll return to on a regular basis.