Pablo de Sarasate in the 1870s
Violinist Pablo de Sarasate in the 1870s

Violin Concerto No.2

Even in Raff's heyday the lovely Violin Concerto No.2 in a minor op.206 played second fiddle to his other pieces for violin and orchestra such as the Fée d'Amour Konzertstück and the 1st. Violin Concerto. It was unusual in being an overtly programmatic piece and this no doubt compromised its prospects of popularity. Perhaps it also didn't help the new Concerto to gain acceptance for it to have been written specifically for the virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate and then effectively been disowned by him unseen. The great Spanish violinist had been a frequent player of Raff's music and had often visited his Wiesbaden home. This led the composer to promise him a new concerto. Despite frequent enthusiastic enquiries from Sarasate about the work during its writing, he cancelled a planned visit in Spring 1877 at which they had intended that they finalise the violin part together. He also evaded premiering the concerto, which no doubt would have done much to promote the work.

Raff was deeply hurt and did not dedicate the piece to Sarasate as he had promised. Instead the new work was premiered by Hugo Heermann in November 1877 and had a second hearing a few days later. It was published the next year and received at least a few more performances, by the Czech soloist Karel Halíř in Vienna in 1885 and 1886, before disappearing altogether from concert halls until its first modern performance in 1999.

Despite its difficult birth, the 2nd. Violin Concerto is a masterful work to which the programme is central, despite Helene Raff's view in her biography that it is "superfluous". At the head of the score Raff appended a three stanza poem by "Arnold Börner" - a nom de plume of his own. Each movement corresponds to a stanza, which indicates what is essentially a fears-consolation-joy progression.

Listen to an audio extract 1st. movement: Allegro "You feel your life's frail barque foundering, the storm rages, and in vain do you pit your pious courage against its fury" [the excerpt is the first climax 1:55]

Whilst on the surface this is a typical Raff first movement with lots of forward momentum, memorable melodies and piquant orchestration, it is quite distinctly programmatic with clearly identifiable groups of motifs associated with the idea of the storm, courage and "life's frail barque". With Raff's usual concern for form, however, it is still a recognisable structure - in this case a heavily modified sonata form. Thematically, it is characterised by relatively short, rather foursquare motifs such as the chorale-like melody which represents "pious courage". This similarity in character of the movement's material gives it a homogenous feel which the forward momentum prevents from descending into blandness.

Listen to an audio extract2nd. movement: Adagio "Coming from distant heights, the soft breath of consolation and hope nears; you feel a reviving warmth, and peace enters your heart" [the example is from towards the end of the movement 2:27]

This C major movement (middle section in C minor) is one of Raff's gems. Throughout the mood is rhapsodic and with an air of faint melancholy, the violin singing a succession of gentle cantabile melodies against a generally subdued and autumnal accompaniment. The movement opens with the main "peace" themes presented quietly by the orchestra and taken up by the violin before a trumpet-led orchestral tutti indicates the "reviving warmth" and leads to the slightly more agitated central section which ends in a brief repetition of the tutti before the calm returns for an extended, rapt revival of the "peace" material.

Listen to an audio extract3rd. movement: Allegro "The storm seems about to resume, but you heed it not, for the pain that oppressed your heart has given way to joy and pleasure" [the example is the start of the movement 1:58]

The movement begins with threatening A minor reminiscences of the opening Allegro, but these are soon dispersed by the violin which introduces the light-hearted "joy" theme which is then tossed between it and the orchestra. The violin starts up another, less buoyant but more cantabile, theme (perhaps "pleasure"). By now in A major, this second theme is developed before a substantial orchestral tutti reintroduces the sprightly "joy" theme and Raff winds up the pace to a dazzling virtuoso conclusion combining the two themes.

All audio excerpts from Tudor 7086. The full score and parts of this work are available in a modern edition from Edition Nordstern.

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