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ClassicsOnline Home » RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 2 (Tra Nguyen)
Though an esteemed symphonist, Raff wrote most extensively for the piano and the three works here come from the very pinnacle of his career. The 1871 Fantasie-Sonate is a fascinating and richly imaginative hybrid, whilst the Variations on an Original Theme is marked by fertility of invention. The Four Piano Pieces exemplify Raff’s gift for lyricism and characterisation.
Joseph Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Piano Music • 2
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, as Raff saw it, to 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 the summit of Raff’s career, the first five years of the 1870s. His Symphony No 3 ‘In the Forest’ had its première in 1870 and proved a spectacular and enduring success. Its two successors, particularly the Symphony No 5 ‘Lenore’, emphatically reinforced Raff’s reputation as Germany’s foremost symphonist. His concentration in these years on larger forms inevitably reduced the flow of piano music from his pen but the works which he did write for the instrument in this period are amongst his most effective and rewarding.
Composed in autumn 1871 and published the next year, the Fantasie-Sonate, Op 168, is the second and least conventional of his three piano sonatas and was dedicated to the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It was a gesture typical of Raff, as he had no truck with German triumphalism after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war only a few months earlier. Surprisingly, in view of its creator’s popularity at the time and the sonata’s quality, it does not seem to have been widely performed. As a protégé of both Mendelssohn and Liszt, Raff was a composer in whom was fused the competing musical trends of the nineteenth century and he skilfully combines these two elements of his musical personality in this aptly-named work, which is neither a free-form fantasy, nor a strict sonata-form structure. Although through-composed, the piece is cast in three clear sections with strong thematic links between them. Its almost improvisatory, slow opening provides a rhapsodic introduction for the D minor Allegro patetico of the first section in which the dominant, restless theme of the work is introduced. Although this turbulent Allegro has some of the characteristics of a sonata structure and Raff introduces a second more song-like theme, he dispenses with a development section as such and instead emphasizes the fantasy side of the work with a series of exciting and imaginative passages as the material is reprised before the music slows for the central Largo. This exquisitely contemplative section in B flat major features several delicate and typically inventive variations on the Allegro’s secondary theme, in which the figurations become progressively more prominent before the reflective mood is broken by a more forceful variation, presaging a return to the stormier atmosphere of the opening as the final Allegro molto arrives. A syncopated recall of the sonata’s main theme leads to a rippling treatment of its more lyrical companion before Raff builds to an impressive climax which triggers a Presto dash to a grandly sonorous closing cadence.
Raff was a frequent composer of sets of variations and some of his most successful were for the piano: the Metamorphosen, Op 74, No 3, (available in the first volume of this series, GP602) and the slow movement variations of his Piano Suites in D minor, Op 91, and G minor, Op 162, were regarded as amongst his finest works for the instrument. The grandest and most original of them is the Variations on an Original Theme in E minor, Op 179, Raff’s longest single movement in any genre, which he composed early in 1873 and saw published later that year. Despite the criticisms sometimes levelled at Raff’s door of poor judgement in his choice of thematic material or of over-production through a lack of self-criticism, his contemporaries always credited him with being an extremely clever composer. He had an autodidact’s love of complexity but, whilst his compositions bristle with fugues, double counterpoint and all manner of other academic contrivances, they are always employed subtly and at the service of the music; he once said about a canon in a chamber work: “Nobody will notice that passage, nobody at all; yet it is nice if you can write something like that.” This set of twenty variations is no exception. It is full of such devices and yet the music is marked by great spontaneity and variety of invention. Writing in 1883, the Austrian critic Franz Gehring described the work as displaying “an astonishing fertility of resource, the theme—of an almost impossible rhythm of five and seven quavers in the bar—being built up into canons and scherzos of great variety and elegance.” Not just the rather disjointed theme, but all twenty variations in this singular work are, probably uniquely in nineteenth-century piano literature, written exclusively in these quintuple and septuple metres or their equivalents. Although harmonically uncomplicated, the progressive variations are suffused with the unease induced by this rhythmic uncertainty, so that one is not so much charmed as unsettled by the kaleidoscopic and endlessly inventive array of attractive melodies, textures, and effects which Raff obtains from his material. The paradox dazzles the listener. His master-stroke comes with the relief of the straightforward 2/4 time of the initially engaging and ultimately impressive finale à la hongroise. Written only a year after Raff’s annus mirabilis of 1872, when he composed three of his finest works, the Lenore Symphony, String Octet and String Sextet, his innovative Op 179 shows a composer also at the height of his creative powers as a writer for the piano.
Raff’s smaller works for piano were extremely popular but his financial naivety meant that he did not benefit much from their success and the large number he produced over the years certainly counted against his reputation as a symphonist. Composed early in 1875 and published later the same year, the four pieces in the untitled Op 195 set are typical of his work in this genre. They demonstrate as much craftsmanship as he lavished on his large scale works and demand a technique which, despite their disparaging categorisation by critics as mere “salon” music, puts them beyond all but the most talented amateurs. The first piece is an Andante con moto Etude in A major, “In the Reeds”. It is easy to hear why this impressionist tone painting of a breeze gently blowing over water was such a favourite in its day. Raff makes good use of a continuously undulating figuration, mostly high in the right hand, both to provide the atmosphere and as contrast for the piece’s sinuously memorable melody. In the next piece, a delightful Berceuse in A flat which Raff marked Largo, he reverses the effect. A rocking accompaniment in the left hand contrasts with a higher tumbling, arpeggiated melody which is gently calmed as the lullaby has its effect and finally peace reigns. The Novellette, an Allegro in C minor, is a much more impassioned piece than either of its predecessors. Essentially of ternary construction, its stormy outer sections sandwich a central trio in which a solemn chorale is interrupted by sprightlier material. The work ends as dramatically as it began. In contrast, the final Impromptu is a lyrical, insouciant free-form Allegro in B flat major into which Raff injects a more introspective mood from time to time. It is an extremely effective piece which is typical of Raff’s grateful and finely judged mature style.
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RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 2 (Tra Nguyen)