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GP655 - RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 6 (Tra Nguyen)
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Joachim Raff (1822–1882)
Piano Music • 6


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. Raff’s 37 year relationship with Liszt had its ups and downs, but there is no doubt of the gratitude which he felt towards his mentor in the early months, after Liszt rescued him from poverty in Switzerland and found him a job in Germany, working at a piano shop in Cologne. In August 1845, shortly after he settled there, Raff composed the Six Poèmes, Op 15, and acknowledged his debt by dedicating the new set to Liszt. It was his second Op 15; he had destroyed its predecessor, and several other pieces, after showing them to his benefactor. The Six Poèmes, which were published individually in 1846, show the 23-year-old Raff still somewhat under the influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but beginning to find his own voice, albeit reflective of Liszt here and there. In them he is at his most lyrical, but also more self-assuredly restrained than in some of his earlier compositions. Passion calmé (Passion Calmed) is a finely wrought, pensive Andantino in B minor, interrupted by a brief Allegretto non troppo vivo passage in B major, which closes with a faster, livelier variant of the opening material. The second piece, De loin (From Afar): Andante quasi larghetto, is another exercise in fragrant delicacy, this time in D flat. No 3 Les amoureux (The Lovers), subtitled Scherzo a due, is a more jolly, robust Allegretto quasi allegro in A flat. Its contrasting middle section in D Flat, with a brief Quasi andante transition, leads back to the closing pages. The fourth in the set is La larme (The Tear): Quasi larghetto in F. It is essentially monothematic, and is the shortest piece in the set, but is arguably also the most passionate. The title of No 5, Chanson suisse (Swiss Song), is disingenuous. It is not the straightforward transcription of a song from the land of Raff’s birth which its title might suggest, but rather a compact set of Andante variations in B flat. Six Poemes closes with an engaging, bravura Gigue in C minor (Presto), which perhaps comes closest to its creator’s later virtuoso style.

22 years later, in autumn 1867, Raff composed the Fantaisie in F sharp, Op 142, a particularly fine example of his mature piano music. Besides the nine fantasies which Raff wrote as arrangements of famous opera melodies, his oeuvre contains fourteen piano fantasies, spanning his whole career from 1841 to 1881. Op 142 is the most ambitious of them in both length and content (for an earlier, and very different, example see the Fantaisie, WoO 15A, available in Vol 1 of this series—GP602). The F sharp Fantaisie is a powerful composition, which demonstrates Raff’s ability to sustain a substantial single span of music, encompassing a wide range of emotions and employing memorable material which, while freely developed, is still moulded into a consistently satisfying whole. The work is dominated by the recurring four-note motif heard at the very start, which is soon transformed during the initial Larghetto, non troppo lento section into a heartfelt cantabile melody. The main body of the piece is an often tumultuous Allegro, interrupted by calmer passages, in which Raff gives his imagination free rein to develop his material to great effect. The Fantaisie, Op 142, shares a certain nobility of utterance with the best of Raff’s large scale piano works, such as the 1859 Piano Suite in D minor and the Piano Sonata of 1881 (available in Vol 5 of this series—GP654). It clearly points the way to his remarkable Fantasy Sonata, Op 168, of 1871 (available in Vol 2 of this series—GP612).

The Barcarolle in E flat, Op 143, (Allegretto, quasi andante mosso) was written at the same time as the Fantaisie, but is a more straightforward and less ambitious work, although not without pitfalls for the unwary pianist. Raff employs a ternary structure, in which the slightly hesitant opening section is followed by a more assertive passage in C major, the cascading decorations of which carry over into the final section’s repeat of the opening material. The Fantaisie and the Barcarolle were both published simultaneously in Germany and France in 1869.

The two pieces comprising Op 169 were written in autumn 1871 and published the next year, when Raff was at the height of his fame. No 1 is a contemplative Romance in E flat (Quasi adagio), while in sharp contrast the second piece is an aptly named Valse brillante, a glittering Allegro in D flat with contrasting slower sections in C sharp minor. Each is a prime example of the many short piano pieces which, even once he was successful, Raff still felt compelled to write for ready cash. Financial security only came in 1877, when he was appointed director of Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatory. The Op 169 pieces share with his other works in the genre the characteristics of being unfailingly lyrical, imaginatively put together with care and craftsmanship, and calculated to both flatter the gifted amateur pianist and reward the professional player, whilst delighting the listener.

Raff’s family holidays in Italy in the 1870s produced a rich musical harvest, amongst which is Erinnerung an Venedig (Souvenir of Venice) Op 187. Composed in Wiesbaden in spring 1873, the six pieces in the set provide a telling stylistic contrast with the Six Poèmes. Whilst Raff’s melodic facility is as strong as ever, there is a notable economy of language, an ability to paint an effective sound picture with a few deft strokes, and a harmonic piquancy in these later pieces, demonstrating how far he had progressed in the intervening 26 years. The opening Gondoliera (Allegretto in B minor) surprises: it is not the happy Gondolier’s song which one might imagine, but instead is an unexpectedly dramatic study punctuated by a couple of dark episodes. The mood brightens with the second piece. Am Rialto (At the Rialto) is an appropriately busy and vibrant picture of the famous market and bridge at the heart of Venice, its E flat Allegro con spirito an effective break with the previous number’s mood. More contrast follows as the gaiety of the Rialto is replaced by the calm Allegretto “song without words” in A major of No 3 Canzone. Fluttering wings are much in evidence in No 4 Zur Taubenfütterung (Feeding the Pigeons). This Capricietto, an Allegretto in D flat, is an easily recognisable depiction of a tourist’s impression of the winged denizens of St Mark’s Square. The fifth piece is an attractive, although not particularly Italianate, Serenade, the set’s fourth Allegretto, which this time alternates D minor and D major. Appropriately enough, the last number in Op 187 is a Venetian dance, the Venetienne. This moderately fast Allegro in B minor moves to B major for its final pages, which recall the carnival atmosphere of Am Rialto. When Erinnerung an Venedig was published in 1874, Raff dedicated the set to Ida Corsini, Marchesa di Tresana, a prominent Florentine patron of the arts.

Mark Thomas

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