ClassicsOnline Home » RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Tra Nguyen)
Although Raff is remembered primarily as one of the foremost symphonists of his day, by far his largest output was for the piano. The three works recorded here date from his early years in Weimar, and include the newly discovered Fantaisie. One of Raff’s first successes, Frühlingsboten portrays nature in many-layered miniature scenes. The Drei-Klavier-Soli concludes with one of Raff’s greatest piano pieces, Metamorphosen.
Joseph Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Piano Works • 1
The reputation of Joseph Joachim Raff was once so high that during the 1860s and 1870s he was regarded by many as the foremost symphonist of his day. Born in Switzerland to a German father and Swiss mother, he gave up a promising teaching career to concentrate on composition, which reduced him to penury despite encouragement from Mendelssohn. Liszt was another early idol and lasting influence; Raff walked for two days through pouring rain to attend a recital by the great piano virtuoso in Basel in 1845. Liszt was so impressed with the young man that he took him with him when he returned to Germany and went on to help the destitute Raff find work in Cologne and later in Hamburg. In 1849 Liszt gave up concert performance to concentrate on composition and he invited his protégé to join him in Weimar. From 1850 until 1856 Raff was part of Liszt’s household there, acting as his amanuensis. Although the relationship became increasingly strained owing to, as Raff saw it, his mentor’s overbearing musical personality, his time in Weimar saw him emerge with an individual musical voice, eventually positioning himself midway between the relative conservatism of the Mendelssohn/Schumann tradition and the revolutionary camp of Liszt and Wagner. Entirely self-taught, he gradually overcame the poverty of his early life in Switzerland and Weimar (where he was once briefly imprisoned for debt) and was able to support himself modestly in Wiesbaden as an independent composer for the next 21 years through teaching fees, his actress wife’s salary and the income from his increasingly successful compositions. His breakthrough came in 1863 when both his First Symphony and a cantata won major prizes. From then on his reputation rose inexorably until in 1877 he became the founding director of the prestigious Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Although primarily known, then as now, as a symphonist, Raff was prolific in most genres; operas, choral works, chamber music and songs abound in his catalogue but by far his largest output was for the piano: there are over 130 works for the instrument, many of them with multiple movements or numbers.
The three piano works recorded here date from Raff’s early years in Weimar, a time when he was revelling in the heady musical atmosphere of Liszt’s circle. They illustrate how quickly he moved from writing which was heavily indebted to Chopin and Liszt (illustrated by the Fantaisie) to the maturity of the Drei Klavier-soli, in which these influences were absorbed and added to the earlier ones of Mendelssohn and Schumann to support Raff’s eclectic, but wholly individual style.
The autograph score of the Fantaisie, WoO 15A in B major was discovered by chance amongst some unrelated Liszt organ works in a library in The Netherlands in 2010. Prominent on the manuscript are performance markings by Liszt and the likelihood is that it was left behind amongst Liszt’s papers when Raff left Weimar for Wiesbaden in 1856. Although the manuscript is not dated it seems probable that the Fantaisie comes from 1850–51 because, whilst the writing is very characteristic of Raff in its melodic inspiration and technical facility, the influence of both Liszt and Chopin is still clear in the figuration and harmonic language, a feature of several piano pieces he wrote at that time. The Fantaisie opens gently: an Andante introduces the plaintively lyrical melody on which the whole piece is based. Although there are no counter melodies and, unusually for Raff, a virtual absence of counterpoint, he holds the listener’s interest as the work progresses by constantly transforming the melody as it becomes increasingly more ornate until the shape and substance of it are completely lost in a miasma of figuration.
Raff wrote Frühlingsboten (Harbingers of Spring), Op 55 between 1850 and 1852, dedicating it to the song composer Robert Franz. Although, as he wrote to a friend, the set of twelve pieces “received the highest praise from every musician”, such was his obscurity that he had to hawk the work around many publishers before it found a home and even then he got little money for it. However, once it was published, in 1853, it proved to be amongst his first successes and its continued popularity required two further editions to be issued during Raff’s lifetime. His great friend the virtuoso pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow declared that “Joachim Raff now makes his first appearance as a master…A wonderful unity of idea and form prevails in every bar…” Finally shrugging off any overt Lisztian influences, throughout the set Raff uses his material sparingly but inventively, curbing his usually liberal melodic invention and restless harmonic palette to create an effective series of many-layered, complex, miniature scenes which build to a satisfying whole. Whilst it is tempting to assume, as Raff’s contemporaries did, from the sequence of the pieces’ titles that Frühlingsboten was a cycle telling a simple story of spring love, Raff himself gave no clue in the score or elsewhere that this was the case.
His imagination fired by nature as much as any other German romantic, Raff begins Frühlingsboten with portraits of two seasons: No 1 Winterruhe (Hibernation), a brief Andantino in F major, depicts the quiet stasis of winter and is followed by the jaunty Allegro non troppo of No 2 Fruhlingsnahen (Spring’s approach). The pseudo-Dorian mode of the third piece Gelübde (Vow), Grave, then creates a solemn religious tone, to which the unsettling E minor of No 4 Unruhe (Anxiety) is in jarring contrast, its mood soon dispelled by the gentle fifth piece Annäherung (Drawing closer together), an Andantino in E major. Raff employs an accelerating fugue to illustrate the Wirrniss (Confusion) of No 6, which is inevitably followed by No 7’s Vorwurf (Reproach), a regretful G minor Andante non troppo building to an angry climax before ebbing away. The dark mood is maintained by the short, foursquare Andantino of No 8 Fern (Aloof) but relents in No 9 Frohe Kunde (Good tidings), a jolly E major Presto which is followed by No 10 Zu zwei (Together again), a calmly happy Andante. In No 11 Ohne Ruh’ (Restless), Allegro, the composer possibly paints a picture of what his daughter Helene called “the strange, fidgety sort of restlessness that Raff always felt with the arrival of spring”. The cycle is rounded off by Abends (Evening), a glowing Larghetto in A flat major which proved to be the set’s most popular piece. Raff’s publishers eventually had arrangements made of it for orchestra, piano four hands and for violin and piano.
Despite the success of Frühlingsboten, until the late 1850s Raff still had difficulty getting his piano music published, unless the piece was one of his transcriptions or arrangements of music from popular operas, for which there was a ready market. Consequently publication of the Drei Klavier-soli (Three Piano Solos), Op 74 (which also dates from 1852) was delayed until 1859, giving rise to its out of sequence opus number. The set was dedicated to von Bülow, who premiered the third piece, Metamorphosen, in Berlin in December 1859 and the Scherzo the following January. Metamorphosen in particular made a great impression on critics and was thought of highly by Liszt who, Helene Raff reported, “played it several times from the manuscript at private gatherings and the audiences were greatly taken by it.”
The dramatically effective first piece in the set, Ballade, has a tripartite structure. After a very short introduction, based on the central section, the first part features a gentle, ruminative melody in G major which is eventually overtaken by the tumultuous passion of the powerful middle section, emerging from E minor. After two histrionic climaxes it subsides into the solace of the final pages: a return to G major and the typically Raffian melody of the opening.
The A minor Scherzo begins hesitantly before launching into a tiptoeing Presto of great charm, gradually growing in intensity before handing over to a new march motif, which itself immediately gives way to a third lyrical theme. Raff plays with his three elements, before building up to a climactic passage leading to the frantic Presto possibile coda.
The Metamorphosen (Metamorphoses) in A flat major, which Raff originally titled simply Variationen, is a tour de force and was recognised from the start as one of his great piano works. Based on an unprepossessing seven note motif, it is laid out on a significantly grander scale than its two companions. Raff begins by stating his theme twice; the first five notes unharmonised. The restatement leads directly into a quasi Fantasia in which the theme’s possibilities are explored in a seemingly improvisatory but increasingly more decorated and dramatic fashion. Four variations, alternating pairs of Adagio and Animando, quasi Allegro, go through a rapid succession of keys and textures varying from the lusciously melodic to highly decorated animation. Portentously sonorous passages punctuate the theme’s skipping transformation, gradually building the music to a climax and becoming more and more forceful as it progresses. In contrast the short variation which is revealed after the music falters is full of worried anticipation, but a bright, dancing Vivace, Scherzoso in the home key brings consolation and leads to a sparkling Molto animato close.