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. This is all the more surprising when it is remembered that, although he subsequently destroyed the very early piano trio and string quartet of 1849, his first great chamber music successes, the first each of his eventual five violin sonatas, eight string quartets and four piano trios together with the Piano Quintet date from 1854, 1855, 1861 and 1862 respectively. Over the next fourteen years, Raff built up this truly impressive catalogue of high quality chamber music, to which he added a Sextet and Octet for strings and a Sinfonietta for ten winds. Although he was clearly never attracted to writing a trio or sonata involving a wind instrument, the piano quartet would seem to be a natural medium for the composer of such an acclaimed Piano Quintet and four very popular piano trios. Yet it was not until 1876 that Raff at last turned to the piano quartet and then, as if to make up for lost time, he wrote a pair of them.
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 C minor op.202 No.2 was published by the Leipzig firm of Siegel in March 1877 (Schäfer. Müller-Reuter says August) and premiered on 5 August the following year in Sondershausen, a small city in Thuringia. This was the home of Prince Schwarzenburg, whose private orchestra had a very high reputation. Since 1871 its directorship, previously held by Max Bruch, had been in the hands of Raff's friend Max Erdmannsdörfer (1848-1905). In 1870 Raff had dedicated his G minor Piano Suite to Erdmannsdörfer's future wife, the renowned virtuoso Pauline Fichtner (1847-1916) and during 1877 he dedicated a second work to the couple, the Fantasy for Two Pianos op.207. This they premiered only a month after the Piano Quartet's own first performance which was at one of a series of Sunday matinées organised by the Erdmannsdörfers. Pauline Fichtner-Erdmannsdörfer was partnered by a trio of prominent players in her husband's orchestra, two of whom, the young Dutch violinist Henri Wilhelm Petri (1856-1914) and the Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan (1855–1920) went on to have prominent solo careers. The viola was played by Herr Kämmerer. There is no record of how the Quartet was received but it gained a second performance the next month in nearby Chemnitz on 26 September.
The C minor Piano Quartet is Raff's last major chamber work, being followed only by a Suite and a Duo for violin and piano. It is a substantial work in four movements lasting almost almost 40 minutes, throughout which Raff's melodic gift is amply demonstrated. Although far from being a concertante work, the Quartet is nonetheless dominated by the brilliant writing for the piano, which starts all four movements and often drives forward the musical argument. Although overshadowed by the early Piano Quintet and first two piano trios, his op.202 pieces are fine works and the C minor Quartet in particular is a worthy addition to his catalogue.
At 14 minutes long, this mercurial movement is the Quartet's most expansive and emotionally complex. It begins somberly with an ominous short motif on the piano. This acts as an idée fixe throughout the movement and is immediately developed into a faster passage as the other instruments take it up. The mood is one of foreboding which is hardly relieved by a second and more lyrical, but no less anxious, melody which has little time to establish itself before a final forceful and more confident idea, a series of stepwise descending jumps, asserts itself. No sooner has this been announced than it is replaced by a more strident restatement of the idée fixe which rises to an impassioned climax before dissolving into the livelier theme once again. Throughout the movement Raff mixes these three ideas and developments of them to produce an atmosphere of feverish unease. The lyricism is always tainted by anxiety, whilst the boisterousness seems bluster aimed at keeping up the spirits in the face of the ever-present fateful five note opening motif. The activity is stilled for three periods of threatening calm, one lasting only a few seconds but the other two half a minute long, during which Raff subtly increases the tension. The third such spell leads into the closing pages with a magical passage in which each instrument enters in turn and this fine movement closes with all three themes interwoven in a final stretta dominated by the lyrical second subject. This is no upbeat ending however as at the very end the pace slows for a broad reprise of the opening fateful motif.
This short 6/8 movement is one of Raff's gems. Less than half the length of its predecessor, it is a hard-driven, strongly rhythmic piece which emphasises Raff's melodic profligacy. No less than five delightful melodies grace this work of under six minutes duration. Introduced by the piano, the cello enters with a very fast and rhythmically strong but quite tortuous melody which is briefly supplanted by a short second and then third much longer and more lyrical theme, before reasserting itself and driving onto the the middle section and a modulation from C minor to the major. The heart of the work is dominated by two typically Raffian cantabile themes played at a more moderate pace. The return of the opening's insistent rhythm is ushered in by piano arpeggios and for the remainder of the movement Raff treats us to a kaleidoscope of all five themes in various contrapuntal and instrumental combinations. The opening makes a final appearance to drive the movement to its close and then dissolves into the first of the themes from the middle section, which hesitantly plays out over piano trills as the movement fades away.
Raff's slow movements are often marked Larghetto and are frequently the emotional centre of the work, and this example in A flat is no exception. The piano begins it with a haunting melody played straightforwardly in 3/4 and is joined by the cello which repeats it. After some conversation between all the instruments based upon a less memorable theme, the violin takes up the principal melody which is now revealed in all its wistful beauty. The pace speeds up as the piano introduces a stepwise theme of a more stately character in G sharp minor, reminiscent of one of the baroque dances from Raff's piano suites, and this is then developed further into a grander passage. Interrupted by sudden pauses this central section leads to another treatment of the first theme, this time taken more quickly and shorn of its pathos because the accompaniment is more staccato and, in the piano's case, busier. The initial theme is then broken down and each bar is played by the piano only to be interrupted by cello and violin in turn, before sweetness returns as the movement builds to a final climax, allowing it to close in a gentler and more resigned tone.
Movement: Allegro [the excerpt from near the end of the piece - 1:33]
After the trauma, drive and solace of the preceding movements, Raff at last moves to C major for this brilliant, happy finale. The piano begins in declamatory fashion, answered by violin and cello before they launch straight into the first of three joyous themes upon which the movement is based. This busy, attractive melody is quickly replaced by a slower chorale formed by an arching melody, in the fashion of heartfelt thanks overtaking simple celebration. After some development of both themes a fresh sprightly melody emerges and drives the movement happily on. It predominates throughout the rest of this generally fast paced and vibrant movement, interrupted a couple of times by the slow theme and then joining it in counterpoint. Finally the opening fast material takes control and rushes this fine work to its confident end, into which the slow theme reappears briefly.
All audio extracts from Divox CDX-20905 [review].