As was common practice before the advent of recording, many of Raff's major works were arranged for piano duet or piano accompaniment so that they could be performed at home or in recitals, thereby ensuring that they reached a much wider audience than they would if they had been confined to the concert hall. More unusually, the industrious Raff made most of these reductions himself. There are no less than 58 piano duet arrangements in his catalogue and a further seven for piano alone. Perhaps surprisingly, given this industry in reducing scores, Raff only subsequently arranged six of his works for larger forces than those for which they were originally conceived.
Works which were from the beginning published in alternative versions are rarer still. The Two Romances op.182, published in 1873, were written for piano and cello or French horn, which is not perhaps a great compositional feat. The only other example of parallel publication is of quite a different order. The Fantasy for Piano Quintet in G minor op.207b was published by Seigel in June 1878 at the same time as its companion piece op.207a for two pianos. Schäfer is silent on the question of which, if either, of the versions came first, although he does give some clues. He lists the pair under the two piano version in his catalogue with the piano quintet one described as an arrangement. Raff himself designated the two piano version as op.207a and Siegel published op.207b with the endorsement "bearbeitet vom Komponisten" (arranged by the composer).
It seems clear, therefore, that Raff originally conceived the Fantasy as a work for two pianos. So different are the two forms that a successful arrangement for piano quintet was clearly no trivial matter but rather a wholesale recomposition of the original material. The Piano Quintet op.107 itself is arguably Raff's finest chamber work and this Fantasy, his only other work in the medium, shows that he had lost none of his facility in the intervening 15 years. The alternative version never really betrays its origins although, as Avrohom Liechtling has observed "considerably more emphasis on block writing for the ensemble is featured here [than in the Piano Quintet], perhaps a remnant of the original two‐piano version." Although, unlike its predecessor, the Fantasy is written in one continuous movement it is still a substantial and subtle work work of around 18 minutes duration, falling clearly into three sections.
The two piano version of the Fantasy was dedicated to Raff's friend, the conductor Max Erdmannsdörfer and his wife Pauline, a piano virtuoso. It was to be Erdmannsdörfer who was to prepare Raff's Symphony No.11 for publication after its composer's death and before their marriage his wife, as Pauline Fichtner, was the dedicatee in 1870 of the Piano Suite in G minor. They premiered the Fantasy for two pianos at Sondershausen on 22 September 1877. There is no record of the premiere of the Fantasy for Piano Quintet.
The first section is the shortest of the three and lives up to its agitato label by launching immediately into the distinctly uncomfortable theme which dominates it. Throughout, the piano is generally limited to some turbulent arpeggios, underpinning the strings and reinforcing the unease in the music. After less than three minutes, when Raff seems only to have started developing the opening material, oscillating between G minor and D flat, the tension is suddenly released and the music spirals down into the next section.
Raff moves to E flat for this section which retains the disturbed atmosphere of the opening one, albeit now more pensive than agitated. The first violin introduces a yearning melody which is quickly taken over by the piano. They follow the same pattern with the terse three-note motif which follows it. This seven minute central slow section is built from these two elements, which Raff continually develops, swapping the line between instruments and contrasting four impassioned climaxes with intervening lyrical episodes. As so often with Raff, this slow section is the work's centre of gravity. Typically lyrical though Raff's melodic material is, the atmosphere throughout remains tinged with anxiety until, after a final surge, the piano introduces a few uncharacteristically carefree bars before the section closes with the strings quietly sketching out descending chords above repeated muted piano arpeggios.
The final section opens suddenly with a G major restatement of the work's opening anxious melody but it gradually eases into a much more relaxed, jolly perpetuum mobile theme ushering in the main section of the finale. A third theme of similar character is added and the atmosphere becomes one of relieved exhilaration. Reminding us of our journey from anxiety to relief, from time to time Raff briefly reintroduces the opening theme and also slows for a longer recollection of the central Larghetto, but nothing halts the helter-skelter rush of this music towards its irresistible stretta finish. A very satisfying close to a comparatively obscure gem from Raff's pen.
All audio excerpts from Divox CDX-20506 [review].