About this Recording
GP653 - RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 4 (Tra Nguyen)
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Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Piano Music • 4

 

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.

One of the works on this recording is separated from the others by the quarter of a century during which Raff rose from being an unknown amateur composer to finding himself hailed as the greatest symphonist of his age. The set of Douze Romances en forme d’ études, Op. 8, was written in autumn 1843, when he was employed as a school teacher in Rapperswil, a town on Lake Zurich in Switzerland. The following year it was amongst a batch of his piano works which Raff’s friends persuaded him to send to his then idol, one of the foremost composers of the day, Felix Mendelssohn, with the request that he look them over and then, being “brutally honest”, advise Raff whether he had any future as a composer. Mendelssohn’s generous and enthusiastic reply not only urged him to take up music full-time, but also confirmed that the great man had recommended all the pieces to his own publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel. They duly published the Douze Romances, with Raff’s understandably fulsome dedication to Mendelssohn, in 1845. Unfortunately, by then Raff was in dire straits; he had taken Mendelssohn’s advice and resigned from his post, which not only caused his baffled family to disown him, but also quickly led to bankruptcy, as he found it impossible to earn enough money as a full-time composer in provincial Switzerland.

Perhaps to appear the product of a more sophisticated author, the complete set of the Douze Romances not only had a French title, but each Etude boasted an Italian one. The products of a young composer, revelling in his new-found skill, there is a melodic freshness and naïve charm to them which is very appealing. It is clear to see why Mendelssohn was so impressed by these products of a 21-year-old who had never had, and never was to have, any formal musical training.

Etude No.1, L’abbandonata (The Abandoned Woman) is marked Allegro moderato. It is framed by an almost Satie-esque melody, a haunting evocation of a distracted and disconsolate woman. The central passage is more conventional, but in well-judged contrast. A simple ternary thematic structure with a parallel alternation between B flat minor and major, underpin this little gem. The Pastorale is an Andante in A flat in which a carefree melodic idea is repeated against an ostinato accompaniment. In contrast, the third Etude, Il fuggitivo (The Fugitive – Allegro agitato quasi presto) is a frantic exercise in anxiety in which Raff repeats a single theme in G minor. L’amicizia (Friendship), an Andantino, features a repeated, rather bucolic first theme contrasted with a vigorous staccato section with which it is eventually combined. L’amicizia is in B flat major. Raff marked Il pianto dell’amante (The Lover’s Tears), the fifth Étude, Adagio ma non troppo. In E minor, it is a charming example of sentimental parlour music. The first melody is full of pathetic yearning, while the second is rather jauntier, but arguably the third idea lacks their refinement. Concluding the set’s first volume is Il delirio (Delirium). A tumultuous piece, full of tremolo in the right hand and darkly threatening passages in the left, it is another exercise in anxiety. Marked Allegro molto agitato, cioè smanioso, it begins and ends in C minor with a brief excursion into the major.

The second volume begins with the gentle rocking motion of the delightfully innocent Allegretto, Etude No. 7 in G major. A barcarole, it is the first of several which Raff was to write during his career. In contrast is the solemn atmosphere of the Preghiera (Prayer – Andante religioso in G flat), in which Raff combines the opening chorale-like theme with a brighter rising melody. The ninth Etude, I gladiatori (The Gladiators – Presto di bravura), is a jolly exercise in E flat major in monothematic staccato. Raff finally moves from the influence of Mendelssohn, which has characterised the set thus far, to that of Chopin in the first of two Polish dances; the tenth study is an Allegro moderato Mazurka in E major. Etude No.11, La contentezza (Contentment – Andante), is a model salon piece. The only theme is, as in so many of these works, repeated almost note for note before receiving some elaboration and being subjected to modest development. The outer sections are in A major, the central section in C major. The second Polish dance, a Polonaise, closes the set. A charming work, mainly in D flat, it shows more individuality than its earlier Chopin-inspired companion. The attractions of the Douze Romances made them modestly popular throughout Raff’s career. In May 1874, when he was at the peak of his fame, Breitkopf & Härtel brought out a new edition, which itself was republished in 1886 after the composer’s death.

The remaining four works here are typical, in their quality, variety and inventiveness, of the stream of piano works which Raff continued to write throughout his career, even as he concentrated progressively on his major orchestral, vocal and chamber works. The Allegro agitato, Op. 151, dates from 1868, but was not published until 1871, and shows all the confident individuality of Raff’s mature piano style. A passionate, tumultuous work in C minor, with a brief calmer central section in C major, it enjoyed some popularity amongst virtuosi in its day, who savoured the showcase it provides.

Raff’s catalogue contains many sets of variations, and perhaps the most successful were written for piano: a pair of substantial quarter-hour-long movements in his D minor and G minor piano suites and, twice their length, the fiendishly difficult Variations on an Original Theme, Op.179 (see vol.2 of this series). La Cicerenella – Nouveau Carnaval, Op. 165, is a much shorter example, but still squeezes thirteen variations and some fearsome pianistic fireworks into its briefer span. It is based on the popular eighteenth-century Neapolitan song Cicerenella (“Little Chick-Pea”, a term of endearment), but Raff withholds the theme until after the forceful Presto introduction. The fleeting variations which follow vary between moderate and fast tempi, and are fashioned into a seamless narrative which is briefly slowed by the delicate Larghetto of the tenth variation, before dashing on to a Prestissimo finish. The work, which is in A minor, was written early in 1871, around the time of Raff’s first holiday in Italy, which prompted him to write a number of other works inspired by the country, the most significant of which is his Italian Suite for orchestra.

Contemporaneous with La Cicerenella are the two endearing pieces which make up Raff’s Op. 166: the lyrical Idylle and a seductive Valse champêtre (Pastoral Waltz). The Idylle, an Andante in C major, is a delightful meditative piece showcasing Raff the melodist, whereas the Valse (Allegro, D flat major), for all its gentle, easy-going charm, is a minefield for the unwary pianist. The three works of Opp. 165 and 166 were published in 1872, but none seems to have gained any popularity.


Mark Thomas


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