About this Recording
GP771 - RAFF, J.: Piano and Orchestra Works - Piano Concerto / Ode au Printemps (Tra Nguyen, Prague Radio Symphony, Stratton)
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JOACHIM RAFF (1822–1882)


The reputation of Joseph Joachim Raff (1822–1882) 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 who invited his protégé to join him in Weimar where, from 1850 until 1856, Raff was part of his household, acting as his amanuensis. Although the relationship became increasingly strained as Raff resented 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 and was able to support himself modestly in Wiesbaden as an independent composer for the next 21 years. 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.

Raff composed nine works for instrumentalist and orchestra, of which three are for the piano. The first of these, Ode au Printemps, Op. 76 (‘Ode to Spring’) is in one movement and subtitled Morceau de concert. It was written early in 1857, six months or so after Raff had left Weimar for Wiesbaden and exchanged his restricted life amongst Liszt’s circle for musical independence and the companionship of his fiancée Doris Genast. Under the circumstances, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he celebrated the arrival of spring with a happy work of such lyrical freshness. He dedicated the piece to the pianist Betty Schott, the wife of Wagner’s publisher, and she premiered it under its original title, Frühlingshymne (‘Spring Hymn’), Caprice symphonique, on 6 February 1860 in Mainz. Schott published it as Ode au Printemps in 1862.

Although Raff volunteered no programme for the concert piece, it clearly charts the yearning for spring and its welcome arrival. The opening Larghetto in G major begins with a short atmospheric orchestral introduction, before the piano spins out a long cantabile melody in which it is later joined by a solo cello and then the full orchestra. As a new theme is introduced the soloist leads the transition into the main Presto section (initially in G minor). Raff’s prowess as an orchestrator and his brilliant writing for the piano combine to produce music of surging energy and joyful exuberance, leading to climactic brass fanfares which surely announce the arrival of spring. The excitement ebbs as a calmer, purely orchestral, passage in E flat major reprises the opening melody before the piano leads the music back to G major for the final pages, in which Raff returns to the sunlit material of the main section and closes the work with an appropriately bravura flourish.

Thirteen years later, and approaching the apogee of his creative life, Raff began sketching his Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 185. The first draft was completed during 1870, but the work wasn’t finished until spring 1873. Dedicated in ‘friendly admiration’ to his lifelong friend the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, it premiered on Wednesday 30 July 1873 in Wiesbaden under Karl Müller-Berghaus, with von Bülow as soloist. It was taken up immediately by virtuosos everywhere and had its London premiere with Alfred Jaëll only two years later. The work was published in 1874 by Siegel.

Although a piece of consummate craftsmanship, it is as delightful and stirring a piano concerto as the Romantic literature has to offer, and wears Raff’s technical expertise lightly. For example, his skill as a contrapuntalist was second to none and every subject in every movement is treated in double counterpoint, yet the concerto is characterised by melody and bravura, rather than dry academic endeavour. The virtuoso William Sherwood wrote: ‘the joyousness and heroic beauty of expression in the finale, no less than the martial themes and popular catchy rhythms are but a fitting climax to a work which is developed so seriously and grandly in the first movement, and with such delicacy and dreamlike ideality in the second’. An American pianist of a later generation, Frank Cooper, who revived the work in a pioneering LP, wrote: ‘The Raff Concerto is a grateful work to play. Its heroic octaves, swirling arpeggios, glittering unisons and jeu perlé filigrees invite pianism at a high level – without straining for effects or pushing the soloist to unheard of lengths. Its felicitous orchestration […] reveals why Raff was so much admired for his knowledge of instruments. Everything sounds. In massive climaxes the texture is somehow full without being thick. The piano writing seems wonderfully idiomatic, a tasteful admixture of soloistic and concertante styles making for fine musical expressivity.’

The opening Allegro is at first sight in conventional sonata form, but it features three, rather than two, main themes, the passionate lyricism of one contrasting with the ardent character of the others. The alternating orchestral and piano passages at the start are also an unusual feature, but more normal for Raff is the elegance and skill with which he gradually builds anticipation and tension until the coruscating close of the movement, where the themes are intertwined between orchestra and either hand of the soloist. The slow movement (Andante, quasi larghetto in A flat major) is a jewel, the emotional core of the work. The languid mood at the opening gradually deepens as Raff weaves two rhapsodic melodies through shimmering textures before introducing a powerful new motif in the orchestra, triggering an emotional climax of great intensity and beauty. Counterpoint again figures to great effect with the orchestra and piano alternating the themes against each other. Having passed through B major and C major along the way, the arching structure slowly returns to a gentle restatement of the opening material. The final Allegro (C major-C minor-C major) begins in an improvisatory manner with reminiscences of the concerto’s opening before launching into the first theme, which Raff based on a march motif from his unpublished incidental music to the play Bernhard von Weimar (WoO. 17 of 1854). This swaggering material has a jolly idea as a counterweight and the two contrasting elements, together with a lyrical melody first introduced by the soloist, are melded together with deft use of counterpoint into a swirling tour de force which is as clever as it is exciting.

One of the ways that Raff eked out a living was to write solo piano arrangements of popular opera melodies, composing 41 such pieces during his career. Between 1847 and 1855 he wrote a series of paraphrases which its publisher Schuberth dubbed Die Oper im Salon (‘Opera in the Salon’). The collection boasted arrangements of operas by Bellini, Halévy, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Rossini, Schumann, Wagner and Weber. Although composed in Weimar in May 1855 the final pair, Raff’s Op. 65, were not published until 1865. No. 1 is a Fantaisie on Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini, and Schuberth perhaps indulged Raff by publishing as the twelfth and final volume, No. 2, his Caprice über Motive aus der Oper ‘König Alfred’ von J. Raff. The four-act grand opera König Alfred, WoO. 14 was completed in 1849 and was premiered under the composer’s baton early in 1851 in Weimar, where it received several performances. It is a fictional account of events surrounding the crucial battle of Edington in 878, when Alfred the Great, King of Wessex defeated the Danes. Although briefly revived in Wiesbaden a few years later it was hardly a well-known piece, but by the time the Caprice was published Raff’s reputation was in the ascendant, and it may be that Schuberth was capitalising on this by adding his name to those illustrious composers whose works Die Oper im Salon had already introduced to salon audiences. It sold well enough for it to be re-published in 1876, and a collected edition of all twelve pieces appeared in 1891.

The Caprice (Allegro con brio in F major) is based on four themes from the opera, two of which dominate it: after a pair of opening flourishes, Alfred’s noble patriotic song from Act III (sung when disguised as a wandering harpist) is the main focus of the first half of the work. It returns in the closing bars, combined with the jaunty march from Act IV (signalling Alfred’s victory over the Danes) which punctuates the remainder of the work. The remaining themes provide sumptuous lyrical contrast. In common with the other Die Oper im Salon pieces, this is no mere potpourri transcription of catchy tunes. The source material is developed and the writing is virtuosic, replete with pitfalls for the unwary soloist. It is a satisfying free-standing composition, worthy of being judged on its own merits.

Mark Thomas

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