Hans von Bülow in his youth
Hans von Bülow in his youth

Three Piano Solos

Raff's Op.74, the Drei Klaviersoli (Three Piano Solos) is the first of three works which he dedicated to his friend and champion Hans von Bülow. He had encountered the 18 year old pianist during his brief stay in Stuttgart in 1847-8 and had helped him overcome parental opposition to taking up a career as a concert pianist. Bülow went on to become one of the foremost conductors of the age, and he remained a steadfast friend to Raff and promoter of his music throughout his life.

Not much is recorded about the genesis of this set of substantial works for piano. If Raff's cataloguer Albert Schäfer is to be believed, they were written sometime in 1852, during the early years of his time in Weimar where he acted as amanuensis to Liszt. Although this was a fulfilling and exciting time for the young composer, within a couple of years he would resent Liszt's stifling influence over him and began to distance himself from his mentor. These three pieces, though, show now sign of the disenchantment to come. In their free structure and harmonic language, they are amongst the most recognisably Lisztian of Raff's compositions.

Several of the major works which Raff composed in his Weimar years were never allocated opus numbers and remained unpublished. The Klaviersoli had to wait seven years, by which time Raff had begun to make a name for himself in Wiesbaden, before his old employer Julius Schuberth, published them in August 1859 as his op.74 (chronologically they belong amongst his opp.50-60). Once published, though, they were soon premiered. Bülow first played the Metamorphosen on Sunday 11 December 1859 in the second Soirée for the principals of the Schiller Foundation in the Hall of the Berlin Singakademie. The Scherzo followed a few weeks later, on 6 January 1860 in the third Soirée of the series, but there seems to be no record of the Ballade's premiere.

Listen to an audio extract Ballade: Andantino, quasi Larghetto [the excerpt is the second climax and return of the opening melody- 2:10]

This piece in G major, lasting almost eight minutes, enfolds a passage of agitated passion within much gentler material. Raff launches into a simple, hesitant melody which he gradually extends and elaborates, adding sentimentality but retaining its ruminative character. The central section in C major is ushered in with an extended upward run towards a third melody which has a rolling, almost humorous caste to it. From this unlikely material he crafts an impassioned and troubled climax with trills forming a backdrop to doom-laden chords. As if spent, the music quickly falls away only for the upward running motif to return in a second angst-ridden outburst. It too falls away, this time for good. The Ballade's calm opening is reprised and the work reaches a peaceful close.

Listen to an audio extract Scherzo: Presto [the excerpt is the end of the piece - 2:21]

At a little over five minutes long, the A minor Scherzo is the shortest of the three pieces in the set, but it is structurally complex: ABCACBABCA. It too begins hesitantly before launching into a tiptoeing Presto of great charm, gradually growing in intensity before handing over to a new march motif, which itself immediately gives way to a third lyrical theme. These two are briefly intertwined with a snatch of the Presto theme, before the latter returns with renewed vigour. The march and the lyrical melody are repeated in turn and are followed by a climactic passage built on piano runs lacking a discernable theme. A frantic coda based upon the Presto motif closes the work.

Listen to an audio extract Metamorphosen [the excerpt is the end of the work- 2:04]

A set of variations in A flat major on an unprepossessing seven note motif, it is is laid out on a grander scale than its two companions, lasting over 10 minutes. Raff begins by playing his theme twice with the first five notes unharmonised. The restatement leads directly into a quasi Fantasia in which the theme's possibilities are explored in a seemingly improvisatory but increasingly more decorated and dramatic fashion before a rather lovely but short Adagio in B major is introduced. This quickly gives way to an Animando quasi Allegro in C major and E major in which portentously sonorous passages punctuate the theme's skipping transformation. The dancing Vivace which follows gradually builds to a climax, becoming more and more forceful as it does. In contrast the short variation which is revealed after the music falters is full of worried anticipation, but a bright Scherzoso in the home key brings consolation and leads to a sparkling Molto animato close.

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