Raff in the 1870s
Raff in the 1870s

Cello Sonata

Raff's only major work for cello and piano is a rather perplexing piece. His first published works in each of the other major canons of chamber music - Violin Sonata, Piano Trio, String Quartet and Piano Quintet were all great and enduring successes, often eclipsing his later works in the same genre. Yet this Sonata, written at the height of his fame, was never popular.

He wrote the Cello Sonata in D op.183 in Wiesbaden in 1873 and it was published by Siegel immediately. The premiere took place in Berlin's Singakademie on 1 December the same year. Raff's reputation, just after the premiere of the Lenore Symphony, was at its zenith and 1873 itself was also the year of the Piano Concerto, Maria Stuart and Suite for Violin and Orchestra - three of his most popular compositions. But the Cello Sonata made no mark at all, despite a dearth at the time of quality works for the cello and despite it possessing the usual Raff virtues of grateful melody, playability and plenty of excitement. The reason might lie in it also being one of the first of his pieces to demonstrate a shift in style from high romanticism towards a sparer, more classical approach.

The Cello Sonata is no dry sterile academic piece but neither does it have the same fiery passion and lush sentimality of, say, the 1st. Violin Sonata of 20 years earlier. The effects are more considered, the dramatic contrasts less extreme and the melodic material less profligate. Raff's use of counterpoint is extensive but subtle. The integration of the two instruments is remarkable and in several passages the piano is the dominant partner - not something likely to endear the work to cellists starved of showpieces.

Overall, therefore, his single Cello Sonata may have seemed to critics to presage a diminution of Raff's compositional powers - a charge from which he unjustly suffered with the publication of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies in the following years. Viewed with the objectivity of time however, it can be seen as an evolutionary work in which Raff managed to meld the dominant thread of romanticism with a more restrained and classical ethos. It remains a powerful and satisfying work and one which is worthy of revival.

Listen to an audio extract 1st. Movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the start - 1:41]

The work opens with one of those ideas of Raff's which, once heard, remain stubbornly in the memory. This fine, passionate D major movement is dominated by a march like melodic fragment which Raff uses to give an insistent driving quality. It is complemented by another theme with a military character and a more lyrical idea which exploits the cello's singing qualities. The variety and beauty of Raff's textures, frequently filled out in places by counterpoint, easily sustain the movement's 10 minute length which ends in an splendid apotheosis of the descending march motif.

Listen to an audio extract 2nd. Movement: Vivace [the excerpt is the end of first scherzo, the trio and the return of the scherzo - 1:50]
This tiny piece lasts barely three minutes and is of ternary ABA construction. A text book fizzing fast Mendelssohnian scherzo in d minor frames a slightly slower D major trio in which the cello briefly sings a cantabile melody. The speed, delicacy and concision make for a breathlessly effective work which is gone almost as soon as it arrives - a butterfly of a movement.

Listen to an audio extract 3rd. Movement: Andante [the excerpt is the end of the movement - 2:15]

The B major slow movement begins with alternating unadorned statements by the soloists of the deeply lyrical melodic material - all of which shares a similar arched contour and which both players go on to embellish. There is a deliberate simplicity to this piece and a comparative absence of passion. Rather, the mood is of reflection and remembrance. This is perhaps the movement which most clearly marks Raff's move to a more classical restraint.

Listen to an audio extract 4th. Movement: Allegro [the excerpt from the middle of the piece - 2:01]

This coruscating D Major movement opens with the cello introducing a lyrical theme possessing a yearning quality in contrast with the piano's lively dotted melody which follows. Raff again combines the two in a dazzling contrapuntal display leading on, with plenty of virtuoso opportunities for each player, to the glittering final pages in which the piano finally takes over the cello's opening melody set against a surging cello accompaniment.

This work is available in a modern edition from Edition Nordstern. All recordings from the October 1997 Joachim Raff Society recital given by Mario De Secondi - cello and Stefana Chitta-Stegemann - piano.

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.