About this Recording
GP634 - RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 3 (Tra Nguyen)
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Joseph Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Piano Music • 3


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.

Even during his lifetime the large number of shorter piano works which Raff composed was felt in some way to detract from his reputation as a symphonist and composer in larger forms. This criticism gradually became orthodoxy, contributing to the spectacular posthumous collapse of his reputation. The piano pieces on this recording, written between 1849 and 1861, contradict this by demonstrating the care and skill lavished by Raff on the smallest of his creations which, when coupled with his genius for attractive and appropriate melody, make it easy to understand why he deserved to be one of the most popular composers for the piano of his generation.

Confusingly, Raff composed three Op 17s. The first, Three Character Pieces, was written in Switzerland in 1844 but was unpublished and soon lost. Its replacement, the first Album lyrique, was composed the next year in Cologne. Its nine numbers were divided into four books and the set was published by Schuberth in 1846. According to Albert Schäfer’s 1888 catalogue of Raff’s music the final Op 17, a replacement Album lyrique, was written in September 1849 whilst Raff was working for Julius Schuberth himself in Hamburg. Why Raff or his publisher felt that the set needed a complete rewrite so soon after its publication is puzzling and especially so as the five volumes of the “Nouvelle édition, entièrement transformée par l’auteur” were not published until 1874–1877. In the absence of the manuscript, the suspicion is that some of the numbers were actually not written until much nearer their publication date. This is supported by the fact that the eighth and ninth pieces in particular are more akin to Raff’s mature style than the Mendelssohn/Schumann syntax of the first seven which is typical of the music of his pre-Weimar years.

Volume 1 of the Album, like that of its predecessor, comprises three Rêveries, the initial two of which are decidedly sad in character: the first of the set, a gently ruminative Larghetto, rubato in G minor, builds to a quietly anxious climax before closing, whilst the F sharp minor Lento which follows is a ternary structure in which the sombre, pensive outer passages enclose a short, more strident central section.

The expressive lyricism of the first pair is replaced by restraint in the third Rêverie, a serious Andante con moto, quasi allegretto in D minor in which the single, repeated theme changes character with each successive treatment until a sudden darkening precipitates a quiet, hopeful close. Volume 2 has a gentle Romance ( Moderato in G flat), the arching structure of which builds to an impassioned climax before gradually falling back, and an attractive and effective Ballade (Allegro – Più allegro, D minor), which is more episodically Lisztian than any of the preceding pieces. The third volume again replicates the previous Op 17 with two Nocturnes of which the first, a delicate Lento in B flat, lays a characteristically Raffian long drawn out melody over increasingly flowery ornamentation. Its shorter companion, a winning Larghetto in A flat, has an ABABA structure in which a seductively slow barcarole is interrupted by two slightly faster sections of related material. Not until the fourth volume’s sole number (Allegro, A minor) does Raff ratchet up the speed. This is a fiery Scherzo interspersed with several contrasting slower episodes, each in turn overwhelmed by the returning faster material. Structurally it is more complex than the seven previous numbers and is stylistically and syntactically closer to the music Raff composed in the 1870s. The same is true of the final volume’s Introduction et Fugue (Allegro, C minor), by far the longest work in the set. An impressively assertive introduction, taking up over a third of the piece, leads to a lively and grandly sonorous fugue, bringing the Album lyrique to a properly emphatic conclusion.

The Impromptu-Valse, Op 94, was the last in a series of three short piano works which Raff composed in Wiesbaden in 1860 for the Leipzig firm of Peters, who published them in 1862. Dedicated to Charlotte de Bock-Hermnsdorf, an eighteen-year-old piano pupil of his, this Allegro vivace in B flat immediately became a firm favourite in salons and drawing-rooms, although the demands it makes on the pianist render it beyond all but the most technically adept amateur. Raff employs a straightforward ternary structure for this engaging work, dispensing with any introduction and launching straight into a fast bubbling melody which soon cascades into a deliciously halting slow waltz. After this central passage in G flat, the longest part of the work, the music closes with a return to the swirling fast waltz of the opening, which quickly plays itself out.

Raff dedicated the Cinq Eglogues, Op 105, (written in Wiesbaden in 1861 and published in 1865) to “Doris”, his actress wife Dorothea Genast, whom he had married two years earlier. An eclogue is a piece on a pastoral subject but these are no mere exercises in the bucolic, for this set of musical gems shows Raff at his most poetic. In the first, an Allegro molto in C major, a heartfelt melody slowly emerges from its filigree accompaniment as Raff gently allows the music to swell to a glowingly emotional climax. The second Eglogue begins with an appropriately rustic Andante con moto which is hesitantly replaced by an agitated Presto, whose character suggests that Raff may have been evoking a sudden rain shower. The return of the opening material provides a more relaxed conclusion to the work. In the exquisitely lovely Andante quasi larghetto of the third Eglogue Raff spins out a beautiful cantabile melody in G flat, delicately harmonised. One might justifiably imagine this short, tender piece to be Raff’s declaration of love for his adored wife. The next in the set, an attractively yearning Andante mosso in C sharp has, in common with so many of Raff’s slow movements, a faint edge of sadness and regret to it which offsets effectively the typically grateful melodiousness of the basic material. In the final number, an upbeat Presto giojoso in A major, Raff concludes with a fast, dancing piece, full of joyfully ascending and descending motifs and glittering, but never empty, passage work.

The contrast between the Cinq Eglogues and the Fantaisie-Polonaise in A minor, Op 106, which was also written in 1861 and published in 1865, clearly demonstrates Raff’s versatility as a composer. It is dedicated to the Swedish concert pianist Ingeborg Stark who, in the year of its composition, married Raff’s friend, the composer and conductor Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf. The Polonaise is a bravura work for which Raff employs a straightforward ABA structure, progressively embellishing the opening theme with his customary inventiveness whilst never losing its essentially Polish character. Interestingly, although elements of Raff’s piano style in the early 1850s owed something to Chopin, barely ten years later this work shows little trace of the Polish master’s influence.

Mark Thomas

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