Raff's only Piano Concerto (in C minor op.185) was numbered amongst his most popular compositions during his heyday and was a favourite of both soloists and audiences everywhere. Dedicated in "friendly admiration" to his lifelong friend the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, it was written in Spring 1873 when Raff was at the high point of his creative life.
The premiere took place on Wednesday 30 July 1873 in the Kurhaus of Raff's home town of Wiesbaden under the composer's baton with von Bülow as soloist. It was taken up straight away by virtuosos everywhere and had its London premiere with Alfred Jaëll only two years later. The work was published in February 1874 by Siegel of Leipzig, Raff making his own arrangement for piano 4 hands, as was his usual practice for major works.
Though by no means an adventurous work even for its own time, it is a piece of consummate craftsmanship, wearing the expertise of Raff's writing lightly to produce as delightful and stirring a piano concerto as the literature can offer. Raff's skill as a contrapuntalist was second to none and yet, despite every subject in every movement being treated in double counterpoint, the work is suffused with bravura and lyricism, rather than dry academic endeavour. The American 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 about it: "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".
Though at first sight a conventional sonata form piece, this c minor movement features three, rather than two, themes; one with a glorious bel canto lyricism and two of a complementary ardent character. 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 the excitement until the coruscating close to the movement where all three themes are intertwined between orchestra and either hand of the soloist. The forceful use of blocks of chords in the closing pages are a clear anticipation of Rachmaninov.
This A flat major movement is the jewel of the work. The languid mood at the opening gradually deepens as Raff spins out the two dreamy melodies and weaves them through shimmering textures towards a slowly building climax. This has great power and beauty and counterpoint again figures to great effect - the orchestra and piano alternating the two themes against the 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 improvisatory opening is complemented by reminiscences of the Concerto's opening. It is only a prelude, however, to the martial character of the final movement, which is emphasised by Raff's use of one of his favourite musical forms - a march. This strutting group of themes has a jolly, lyrical idea as a counterweight and Raff melds these two contrasting elements together with deft use of counterpoint into a swirling tour de force which is as clever as it is exciting.
Audio excerpts from the first two movements from Tudor 785. The extract from the finale is from Dante PSG 9655 [review].