About this Recording
GP654 - RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 5 (Tra Nguyen)
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Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Piano Music • 5

 

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 due 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 set of Blätter und Blüten. Zwölf Klavierstücke, Op. 135 (Twelve Leaves and Blossoms), was written in Wiesbaden in 1866, just after the success of his First Symphony had catapulted Raff to the national prominence which he would retain for the rest of his life. The character of each of its pieces illustrates the then popular notion of the “Language of Flowers”, in which blooms were emblems for human moods, or attributes. That Raff was familiar with the idea is clear from his later set of six songs with that title, the texts for which also employ the concept. Leaves and Blossoms amply demonstrates the mastery which Raff had achieved in quickly establishing mood and colour, whilst founding each of its short, elegant pieces on the characteristic Raffian bedrock of grateful, memorable melody. It is typical of the dozen or so extended sets of piano pieces which he wrote throughout his career, combining delicacy of utterance with substantial technical demands on the pianist. The set was published in four volumes in 1867, and Raff also arranged it for piano four hands.

Epheu (Ivy), a gentle Andantino in G major, is a contented evocation of marital fidelity, although a more agitated central section perhaps hints at the odd argument. It’s followed by the rather bleaker A flat major Larghetto of Cypresse (Cypress), signifying mourning, which also has an appropriately anguished middle passage. The final piece in Volume One is Nelke (Carnation), and at once spirits are revived as Raff portrays pride and beauty with a confident G minor Presto, interrupted by a statelier, slower passage in the major.

The second volume begins with a bright, lively Allegro vivace in E flat major, employed to portray the glory and ambition signified by Lorbeer (Laurel), with yet another contrasting middle section, this time a more meditative B major episode. Raff composed a predictably lovely cantabile melody for the fifth piece: Rose, which signifies beauty. The shortest of the numbers, this Andantino, non troppo lento is in C major. The happy mood continues with the gaiety of No. 6, Vergißmeinnicht (Forget-me-not), an Allegro grazioso in B flat major which melts into a sweetly lyrical G major central section before the carefree opening material returns.

The third volume opens with Reseda (Mignonette), an attractively hesitant Allegretto in C major. The hesitation is understandable: Reseda signifies the double-edged compliment that “your qualities surpass your charms”. No. 8, Lubine (Lupin), is a reflective Andante, illustrating the lupin. This piece oscillates between B major and minor, its rather despondent tone illustrating the effects of the voraciousness which the bloom signified in the Language of Flowers. Animone (Anemone) is the ninth number, an appropriately cold Allegro in F major for the flower which was the emblem of the forsaken.

After the downbeat pieces of the third volume, the three works in the final book are more positive in their outlook. No. 10, Immergrün (Periwinkle) (or early friendship), is a quicksilver, jolly Allegretto in A minor with a warm, lyrical central passage. This is followed by the short penultimate piece, marked Allegretto pastorale (quasi Andantino). Maiglöckchen (Lily of the Valley) denotes the return of happiness and, appropriately enough, it is a straightforward evocation of quiet satisfaction, featuring a glowing, tastefully decorated melody in B flat major. As with so many numbers in this set, Raff employs a ternary structure for the final piece, Kornblume (Cornflower). Perky C major Presto episodes enclose a slower central section of much more lyrical refinement in A minor, which is the embodiment of the delicacy which the cornflower supposedly represented.

The Grande Sonate pour le Piano of 1881 is one of Raff’s major works. He wrote three essays in the genre: a very early composition dating from 1844, the compact, single-movement Fantasy Sonata, Op. 168 of 1871 (available on volume 2 of this series – GP612) and this third example, written near the end of his life. The early and late works each have the conventional four movements and, confusingly, they share not only the key of E flat minor, but also Op. 14 in their creator’s catalogue. One might suppose that the later piece is merely a revision of the 1844 original, but in fact it is a completely different composition, unrelated to the earlier one except in title and key. To understand how this peculiar situation came about, we must go back to 1844, when Raff’s friends persuaded the then 22-year-old schoolteacher to send a bundle of his compositions, including the newly completed Sonata, to Felix Mendelssohn and ask for the great composer’s opinion of their worth. An impressed Mendelssohn advised him to take up music full-time and recommended the piano pieces to his own publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel, who obligingly published them as Raff’s Opp. 2–14. Despite an enthusiastic review by Robert Schumann, Breitkopf did not do well out of their unknown composer, and for almost thirty years they published no more of his music. By the early 1870s, though, Raff was at the height of his fame, and the publisher decided to reprint the second book of his Douze Romances, Op .8 (see volume 4 of this series – GP653). Its sales encouraged Breitkopf to approach Raff with the suggestion that they republish the rest of his youthful compositions, but he countered with the idea that instead he would completely rewrite them. So, between 1876 and 1882 he composed replacements for nine of the original thirteen works, always retaining the opus number and a similar title, and often the same key. By far the most significant of these pieces is the Grande Sonate pour le Piano, which occupied him during October and November 1881. It was to be his penultimate composition for the instrument, and was published posthumously in 1882.

With a duration of 35 minutes, Raff’s Grande Sonate pour le Piano of 1881 is conceived on a symphonic scale. The opening Allegro, in E flat minor, has a bleak nobility about it. Whilst still essentially in the expected sonata form, it is more episodic than one is used to from Raff: sections of dense polyphony contrast with homophonic passages, whilst at the same time his characteristically strong melodic thrust preserves continuity for the listener. Its tonality is shared with the tumultuous Allegro molto which follows. Like the rest of the work, this brief movement is highly pianistic and encloses a contrasting, and typically Raffian, cantabile central section. Raff moves to B major for the Sonata’s centre of gravity, a sonorous Larghetto, dominated by long drawn out melodies of dignified regret, which are interrupted by a more stressful, animated central passage, before returning in modified form to close the movement. The good-natured Allegro finale (E flat major) eschews its predecessors’ abundance of counterpoint, although Raff cannot resist incorporating an extended fugal passage, perhaps as a nod to the fugue which ended the original Op. 14. Rather than acting as a climax to a work, his finales often serve to defuse the tension he has already established in it, and the mood here is one of catharsis rather than of triumph. It makes a satisfyingly philosophical close to a piece which is a complex and often sombre farewell to Raff’s catalogue for the piano.


Mark Thomas


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