Raff was 48 years old and near the height of his fame when he composed the fifth of his seven suites for piano. The Piano Suite in G minor op.162 followed its predecessor the D minor Suite after eleven years but is similar to that great work in many respects. Unlike the other five suites they are both restricted to four movements, are conceived on a symphonic scale (op.162 lasts around 35 minutes) and are entirely romantic in conception, free of the baroque colour with which the composer imbued both their predecessors and successors. Uniquely, the movements of the G minor Suite have German titles, rather than the baroque-sounding ones which feature in its companions.
The work was composed in Wiesbaden in Autumn 1870 and published in May the next year by Challier of Berlin. Although it doesn't seem to have had the great popularity of the D minor Suite, it still gained many performances and the mighty second movement was frequently played as an independent concert piece. A measure of the Suite's standing can be judged by the fact that it was arranged for piano 4 hands by Raff's friend the respected theoretician Ludwig Bußler (1838-1901), and the Ländler third movement was arranged for piano & violin in 1877 by Paderewski's composition teacher Heinrich Urban (1837-1901).
By the standards his day, Raff was never particularly liberal in dedicating his works, and he became more sparing as his fame increased. In the twelve years which remained to him he wrote over eighty works, but only this piece and seven others had dedicatees. The G minor Piano Piano Suite was dedicated to a pretty 23 year old Viennese pianist, Pauline Fichtner (1847-1916). Highly regarded, she was a former pupil of Liszt and held court positions in both Darmstadt and Weimar. She was clearly a favourite of Raff's as in 1877 he also dedicated his Fantasie for two pianos op.207 to Pauline and her husband of four years, the conductor Max Erdmanndörfer. It was he who was later responsible for the posthumous preparation for publication of Raff's 11th. Symphony.
Oscillating between G minor and G major the opening Allegro begins with an improvisatory feel which it never really abandons despite, as its title suggests, being in sonata form. Glissando flourishes give way after a minute or so to a typically memorable main theme - a rocking melody with a sonorous accompaniment which recurs throughout the movement, anchoring the fancies of Raff's developmental imagination. With its sprightly tempi it is hardly a typical elegy, but Raff is subtle. The elegiac atmosphere emerges slowly, rather than being signalled from the start by a slow tempo. The juxtaposition of the easily recognised main theme and the seemingly free-flowing fantasy of swiftly changing textures and dynamics which swirl around it, combine to give the movement as a whole an air not so much of sadness but of bitter-sweet remembrance. The end is a surprise; this fine piece comes to an abrupt close after a short fortissimo passage.
Raff seems to have had an affinity for movements in variation form and this one is particularly successful, becoming very popular. The Larghetto "folk tune" (which may itself have been of Raff's invention) on which the movement is based is stated simply at the start of this expansive movement. The ten variations which follow are extremely virtuosic and uniformly charming. The third variation is an elaborate contrapuntal affair, which contrasts with the quicksilver triplets of the next variation. The fifth one, a Presto is an attractive but fleeting thing, over almost before it has begun. Variation seven reaches E flat major and is almost a concert study in itself. A typically Raffian construct matches an elegiac melody with hesitant, intermittent and very demanding figurations. The dance rhythms of variation nine lead to the delicate final variation which features cascading falls of notes heralding a restatement of the folk tune in the left hand set against further cascading decoration in the right.
The lovely little Allegretto which follows is a much more modest affair. Raff's version of the Austrian dance is no Brucknerian yokel's stomp, but a genteelly delicate episode in which the two themes which comprise the material are carefully chosen to contrast and complement each other. Harmonically wide ranging, it begins in E flat and manages in seven minutes to take in B , G, D, A flat and C before returning to its home key. The gentle, reflective ending is particularly effective.
This "Fairy Tale" (Raff volunteers no programme) is the Suite's shortest movement. A forceful opening leads to a rocking figure which Raff uses as the basis for a sort of Rondo, but one mainly distinguished by changes in the accompaniment to this theme rather than any radically new melodic material. Although attractive enough in a conventional way, this Allegro vivo in G minor has the feel of an intermediate movement rather than a finale and as such it is something of a let down. The preceding three movements, which rank with any of those Raff penned for the Suite's great predecessor in D minor, demand an altogether grander or at least cleverer close.
All audio excerpts from AK Coburg DR-0006 [review]