The piano quartet was one of the major chamber music genres in the 19th. century and yet Raff only contributed to the literature towards the end of his career. Both Schäfer and Müller-Reuter are silent on the circumstances of the composition of the Zwei Quartette für Pianoforte, Violin, Viola & Violincell op.202, beyond recording their composition in Wiesbaden early in 1876. It was a significant time in Raff's career. After the huge successes of the 1860s and early 1870s, the critics began to accuse him of failing inspiration, citing as evidence the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. 1876 was the year in which Raff responded to this criticism by producing a series of major works: two symphonies, a cello concerto, an extended work for violin and piano and a piano suite as well as the two piano quartets. A measure of how profound was this artistic crisis is that he laid aside the first of the symphonies and it was only published posthumously (as No.11 Der Winter).
It was not unusual for Raff to compose several works in the same genre sequentially. Unlike Brahms, who would worry away at a work for many years until he got it right, destroying many drafts in the process, Raff was more inclined to see a composition through and write another if the first didn't say all he wanted to say at the time. This should not be taken as implying that Raff was as unself-critical a composer as Anton Rubinstein, but rather that he was unusually industrious and hard working and was prepared to devote the time and intellectual energy in short order to a further composition in the same genre. Other examples of this tendency are the two sets of three String Quartets opp.136-8 and op.192, the two symphonies of 1876 (the second being No.8 Frühlingsklänge), the Third and Fourth Piano Trios, the Third and Fourth Violin Sonatas and the first three piano suites. With the exception of 1876's two symphonies illustrating the seasons, these sets of works in the same genre were not intended to be regarded as linked and dependent pieces. Quite the opposite; for Raff they represented different solutions to the technical problems presented by their medium, illustrating the wide span of emotions or styles which it could encompass. So it is with the two piano quartets in op.202. No.1 is a sunny work in the open-hearted, relaxed key of G major, whereas No.2 is in the lovelorn key of C minor and has a much more troubled and complicated character..
The Piano Quartet in G major is a large scale work lasting about 40 minutes in performances. Like its companion it is conventionally cast in four movements, of which the opening Allegro and the third-placed Andante are by some margin the longest. Whilst it is a much cheerier work than the C minor Quartet, it is by no means an uncomplicated and consistently happy one as the middle movements are darker in character than the outer ones. Published by Siegel in September 1876, the work was premiered in Dresden on 19 February 1877 by a quartet comprising Emil Höpner (piano), Franz Schubert jun. (violin), Wilhelm Mehlhose (viola)and Karl Hüllweck (cello). The same players performed the work a second time in Dresden on 27 March by which time it had already received its second performance in Stuttgart four days earlier. It is it is grateful composition on the ear and an enjoyable one to play, very much cut from he same cloth as the popular Piano Quintet and the first two Piano Trio but, despite the initial enthusiasm, the First Piano Quartet does not seem to have achieved lasting success.
At almost 13 minutes, this is the longest of the Quartet's movements. It gets off to an upbeat start with a sprightly opening theme, an idea quickly shared by all players before a second, more dance-like theme makes its entry. Maintaining the initial momentum, these two ideas are developed as Raff establishes the movement's fresh, open-air character which it maintains throughout. The drive slackens for a few bars to prepare for the introduction of a final group of themes, this time an upward-moving passionately lyrical melody which is then explored before all the material we have heard is repeated. The movement continues with a series of combinations of these three themes but without any dominant climax. Whilst quite dramatic and consistently lively, the piece is wholly positive in mood throughout and comes to a satisfyingly climactic end. Although Raff's writing for the ensemble ensures that no single instrument dominates the movement, the violin does have a prominent voice throughout whilst the piano is often employed to proved decorative figurations rather than to drive the argument forward.
This short scherzo in G minor marks a dramatic change from the sunlight of the previous movement. Here Raff conjures up spectres and ghouls in an atmosphere reminiscent of several of his symphonic scherzos and, perhaps most memorably, the finale of the Lenore Symphony. The pounding piano immediately establishes an insistent rhythm as a prelude to the scurrying upper strings entry with a fidgety idée fixe which the cello threateningly underscores. The spectral goings on are briefly interrupted by the cello and viola intoning a mellower, but no less dark, lyrical melody which is quickly overwhelmed by an even more frantic return to the opening theme. The two ideas alternate a second time before the piano briefly tries a third, new, descending motif which is quickly replaced by a restatement of the opening theme, a highly lyrical and much more consoling reminder of the second melody and then the final dash to the end. In less than six minutes Raff has managed to deliver a movement which is packed full of incident and originality.
The abrupt change from the scherzo's G minor to the slow movement's E minor underscores the unsettled mood which has already been created, but the piano brings some calm as it intones a typically Raffian long-breathed melody with a regretful air to it. There follow eight variations, the first of which is for the upper strings alone over the cello's pizzicato bass. Each variation gains in complexity: the second is a development of the first in which the piano joins, third features the cello and piano, over pizzicato chords from the violin and viola, the fourth builds the music towards the dramatic and harrowingly sorrowful climax which the fifth extended variation provides. After a sudden slowing and then a move to the brighter E major, the next two variations provide some solace as they lighten the mood and return to the lyricism of the opening. The eighth variation sees a return to the minor key and a sudden quickening of the pace before the theme itself returns in a coda which, after twelve minutes, looks back to the movement's opening.
Movement: Allegro [the excerpt is the end of the piece - 2:05]
The finale opens with a wake up call and immediately launches into a jolly first theme, which has much the same character as those of the first movement. A second skipping theme is introduced, as positive as its predecessor and then these two are developed before Raff introduces yet more material, a lightening quick figuration which is played aroundwith before the first motif returns in counterpoint with the piano's rapid figurations. Raff combines these themes in a playful, but never empty way, eventually adding a fourth, more lyrical, melody to the increasingly fast-paced mix. One of its creator's more successful finales, its nine celebratory minutes are swiftly over in a coda which combines the first two themes in a final peroration.
All audio extracts from Divox CDX-20905 [review].